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Azerbaijan7 May 2003

Government targets opposition papers

Reporters Without Borders strongly protested today at official harassment of the opposition media, including four newspapers that printed allegedly "unprofessional" articles about President Heidar Aliev. It said it feared legal, propaganda and physical attacks on journalists and the media would increase in the run-up to presidential elections in October.

The state prosecutor’s office today warned the papers -Yeni Musavat, Hurriyet, Azadlig and Milliyet - that they had violated the press law by publishing the articles. Also today, police refused to investigate a 4 May attack on the staff of Yeni Musavat in which several of them were injured.

"So far the opposition press has mainly been a target of systematic legal harassment aimed at bankrupting it, with Yeni Musavat facing as many as 14 libel cases," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to interior minister Ramil Usubov. "But the latest warning, just two days after the attack on the paper, and the police refusal to investigate, is much more serious. We ask you to open an enquiry into the attack and see that all harassment of the opposition press ceases."

A gang of about 30 men attacked the offices of Yeni Musavat on the evening of 4 May, threatening to kill editor Rauf Arifoglu, who was not there, and causing extensive damage. Assistant editor Gabil Abbasoglu and journalists Elshad Pashasoy, Samir Azizoglu and Khalid Kazimli were injured. One journalist called police, who later arrested four people but did not charge them with anything.

The attackers told journalists not to write any more about Aliev’s precarious state of health and to stop criticising the authorities. Arifoglu said police protection of the office, begun three days before, was withdrawn two hours before the attack. The journalists had anticipated the attack and asked for a police guard after government officials had called for the paper to be "punished" and after articles appeared in the government press accusing Yeni Musavat of being an "enemy of the nation" for calling on Aliev to resign for health reasons.

Police seized 1,800 copies of the paper’s Russian-language edition at the Viza-Media printers in Baku on 2 May and arrested four journalists - including Azer Aykhan, Firdovsi Akhmedov and Sayyad Gadirli - and the head of the printing works, Aliovst Talishkhanly, and two other workers there for publishing "anti-government" material.

The authorities have been harassing firms distributing newspapers in the Baku subway system since 21 April. Sakit Hasanli, head of the organisation Press Development Aid, subway officials have refused to sign a new three-month distribution contract with the Said and Mars-3 companies if the four opposition papers are included.

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