The country is rich in oil and natural gas but poverty is also severe, as petrodollars feed a black market and massive corruption. Exposing this can be dangerous and independent and opposition media are under constant pressure from the regime.
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Four men beat up Nijat Huseynov, of the major opposition daily Azadlig, in Baku in January 2007 as he was investigating corruption and abuses by government officials. A few days earlier, he had received phone calls warning that he would be “punished” for what he had written. He recognised one of his attackers as someone he had seen during his investigations. He was kicked, hit and stabbed and hospitalised with head and stomach injuries.
The paper’s problems continued to pile up during the year. Editor Ganimat Zahidov, the older brother of journalist Sakit Zahidov (sentenced to three years in prison in October 2006) was accused of “aggravated hooliganism” in what appears to have been a set-up. He was put in custody for two months in November 2007 and faces five years in prison. Setting up journalists and then convicting them of common law offences is a favourite tactic of the regime and allows “troublemakers” to be disposed of. Sakit Zahidov was accused of drug-trafficking but said the police planted heroin on him.
Libel a favourite weapon
Lawsuits for libel and insults increased in 2007. Faramaz Allahverdiyev, of the daily Nota Bene, was sentenced to two years in prison in January for writing a column about the political betrayal of the late President Heydar Aliev by interior minister Ramil Usubov.
Eynulla Fatullayev, founder of two of the country’s biggest daily papers, Gundalik Azerbaijan (in Azeri) and Realny Azerbaijan (in Russian), was sentenced to two and half years in prison in April for supposedly libelling and insulting Azerbaijanis in an article about Armenia. The editor of Gundalik Azerbaijan, Uzeir Jafarov, was physically attacked just after he had testified in Fatullayev’s defence. The two papers were forced to close in May by the authorities, who cited violations of fire safety regulations. The staff protested by asking for political asylum in other countries and were joined by other journalist applicants, making a total of 24.
Fatullayev appealed against his sentence but the charges against him were increased in October and he was given an eight and a half year prison sentence for “threatening terrorism” (article 214.1 of the criminal law), tax evasion (art. 213.2.2) and “inciting racial hatred” (283.2.2). He was also fined 200,000 manats ($230,000) and the two papers’ 23 computers were ordered seized.
The charges arose from an article in May criticising the government’s foreign policy headed “The Alievs prepare for war” and saying the country risked reprisals if the United States launched a military strike against neighbouring Iran. Fatullayev sarcastically thanked the court for its “too lenient” verdict and mentioned the March 2005 killing of Elmar Huseynov, editor of the independent weekly Monitor. Fatullayev had accused the authorities in March 2007 of obstructing the investigation into his death. He was also convicted in April of defaming the army by accusing Azerbaijani troops of killing inhabitants of the village of Khojali (not just Armenian troops) during the 1992 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Two journalists of the daily Mukhalifat, Yashar Agazadeh and Rovshan Kabirli, were each sentenced to two and a half years in prison in May for libelling the president’s uncle, Jalal Aliev, by accusing him of corruption. The supreme court in July confirmed prison sentences on Samir Sadagatoglu, editor of Sanat (four years), and staffer Rafik Tagi (three years) for a November 2006 article criticising Islam.
Ilgar Nasibov, the correspondent of Radio Free Europe in Nakhichevan (the Azerbaijani autonomous republic which has borders with Armenia, Turkey and Iran) was arrested in December after an argument with a police officer who insulted him, said he had an “undesirable” profession and accused him of spreading false news about events in Nakhichevan. Nasibov and his wife had been harassed by police for several months. He was summoned to a police station on 6 December, supposedly to sign some papers, but was instead arrested and sentenced to three months in prison for “defaming” the police officer. The arrest, the first of a journalist working for a foreign media outlet, was widely condemned. Nasibov’s appeal was heard in secret and his sentence was suspended.
Pressure from the international community
The European Parliament’s human rights committee in August called the press freedom situation in the country “unacceptable.” Andrew Herkel, co-rapporteur of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, said appropriate steps would have to be taken if the rights situation did not improve by the start of 2008.
President Ilham Aliev pardoned five of the eight journalists imprisoned in Azerbaijan on 30 December. But press offences legally still count as crimes and three journalists are still in jail. Journalists cannot work freely, without fear of prison, until press offences are decriminalised. The run-up to the autumn 2008 presidential election will show which way the wind is blowing.