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Azerbaijan 14 May 2008

Baku appeal court upholds four-year sentence for newspaper editor

Reporters Without Borders condemns yesterday’s decision by a Baku appeal court to uphold the four-year prison sentence that Ganimat Zahidov, the editor of the opposition daily Azadlig, received on 7 March on charges of “aggravated hooliganism” and “assault and battery.”

“The appeal court’s decision confirms our fears about violations of basic freedoms and human rights in Azerbaijan,” the press freedom organisation said. “The authorities turned a deaf ear to the international community’s appeals and chose to pursue their policy of persecuting the press.”

Zahidov was convicted in connection with an incident outside a publishing house on 7 November 2007 that appears to have been orchestrated. When a young woman began to shout, a man intervened, accused Zahidov him of insulting her, and started a fight with him. He was arrested three days later and has been detained ever since.

07.03 - Opposition newspaper editor gets “politically-motivated” four-year prison sentence

Reporters Without Borders is appalled to learn that a Baku court today sentenced Ganimat Zahidov, the editor of the opposition daily Azadlig, to four years in prison for “aggravated hooliganism” and “assault and battery” in connection with a November 2007 incident in which he was accosted by a stranger. The man who accosted him, Vusal Hasanov, got an 18-month sentence.

“This sentence is shocking and extremely severe,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We have every reason to suspect that the incident was contrived from the outset with the sole aim of silencing an opposition journalist. Even if Zahidov were guilty of what he is alleged to have done, a suspended sentence would have been more appropriate.”

The press freedom organisation added: “This verdict says a lot about how the authorities plan to approach the a presidential election that is due to take place a few months from now. The three journalists currently in prison should be released in order to be able to cover the campaign. Instead the authorities have given an extremely negative and disappointing signal.”

The four-year sentence was passed on Zahidov by judge Sudaba Mamedova of the Yasamal district court in Baku. The prosecutor had requested five years.

The incident that led to Zahidov’s arrest took place on 7 November. He was going up the steps into the building where the “Azerbaijan” publishing house is located when a young woman on the steps (subsequently identified as Sevgilade Guliyeva, a person with a previous conviction for theft) began to shout and accuse him of insulting her.

At this point, a man subsequently identified as Vusal Hasanov grabbed Zahidov and insulted him. Zahidov tried to push him away and the two men began to fight. When bystanders sided with Zahidov, Hasanov and the young woman left together.

Zahidov told Reporters Without Borders about the incident on the day it happened. He said he regarded it as deliberate provocation in retaliation for his articles accusing President Ilham Aliev’s wife of corruption or for articles about highway code violations by the president’s relatives. He was summoned by the police on 10 November and placed in preventive custody. He has been held ever since. The trial began on 8 January.

Zahidov’s younger brother, Sakit Zahidov, a writer who works as a reporter for Azadlig, is serving a three-year sentence that he received in October 2006. His state of health is very worrying.

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