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Azerbaijan 14 November 2007

Authorities continue to criminalize opposition press, arresting newspaper editor on hooliganism charge

(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders condemns a Baku court’s decision on 11 November to detain Ganimat Zahidov, the editor of the opposition daily Azadlig, for two months pending trial on charges of “aggravated hooliganism” in connection with an apparently orchestrated incident six days ago. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

“We are appalled by this decision, which confirms that the Azerbaijani authorities see the opposition press as a criminal enterprise,” the press freedom organisation said. “Any method, even the most outrageous ones, are used to punish journalists who dare to criticise the president and those close to him.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “We urge the judicial authorities to carefully examine what happened on 7 November and, in particular, we would like all the eye-witnesses to be allowed to testify, because there are two contradictory versions of the incident. The conviction of Zahidov’s younger brother and fellow journalist a year ago on a trumped-up drug charge reinforces our suspicion that this has been deliberately orchestrated.”

Zahidov was summoned to the Yasamal district police station in Baku on 10 November in connection with a complaint by a certain Vusal Hasanov claiming that Zahidov had assaulted him three days before. After being taken into police custody, he was brought the next day before a Yasamal judge, Tahir Ismailov, who ordered him placed in pre-trial detention. His trial is due to take place in two months.

According to Zahidov’s account of the 7 November incident, he was entering the building where the “Azerbaijan” publishing house is located at around 3:30 p.m. when a young woman (subsequently identified as Sevgilade Guliyeva Azim Gizi) who was on the steps leading into the building began to shout and accuse him of insulting her.

Hasanov then grabbed Zahidov by the jacket and shouted: “Who are you to bother his girl?” Zahidov tried to push him away and the two men began to fight. After people who had seen what happened took Zahidov’s side, Hasanov and the young woman extricated themselves and left in a taxi together. As Hasanov was getting into the taxi, he shouted at Zahidov: “You will see!”

Zahidov told Reporters Without Borders about the incident on the day it happened. He said he regarded it as deliberate provocation in retaliation for articles accusing President Ilham Aliev’s wife of corruption or for articles, the latest of which had appeared that day, about highway code violations by the president’s relatives.

In a press release yesterday, the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety referred to so far unconfirmed press reports that Hasanov and the young woman had met prior to 7 November in order to plan the incident. Zahidov’s younger brother, Sakit Zahidov, a poet and Azadlig reporter, received a three-year jail sentence in October 2006 on a trumped-up charge of possession of heroin.

Eight journalists are currently detained in Azerbaijan, which was ranked 139th out of 169 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.

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