Ignoring international opinion, the authoritarian government of President Ilham Aliyev clamped down on opposition and independent media and became the world’s fifth-leading jailer of journalists, with nine reporters and editors behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ ranked the oil-rich Caspian Sea state as one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom.
In cracking down, Aliyev and his government were simultaneously emboldened by Azerbaijan’s growing energy profits and apprehensive about a “color” revolution of the kind that had toppled corrupt regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Taking a cue from the region’s leader, Russia, Azerbaijani officials shrugged off criticism of their steady assault on the press, confident that the West’s need for energy would outweigh human rights concerns. Aliyev, who was expected to seek another term as president in the October 2008 election, essentially inherited the office from his father, Heydar Aliyev, who stepped aside in 2003 due to failing health. (The 2003 presidential election, which the young Aliyev won amid vote-rigging allegations, was largely seen as symbolic.) Like his father, Ilham Aliyev has ruled with an iron hand, using politicized courts and loyal law enforcement agencies to crush dissent. A fragmented political opposition, beset by bickering and mistrust, has been unable to gain traction.
Responding to deteriorating press conditions in Azerbaijan, CPJ Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova testified in August before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ognianova said the spike in imprisonments had resulted in pervasive self-censorship, and she urged the commission to make press freedom issues a priority in Azerbaijan and other former Soviet states.
While law enforcement officials devoted time and resources to imprisoning critical journalists, they reported no progress in solving the 2005 murder of Elmar Huseynov, editor and founder of the opposition newsweekly Monitor. Instead, authorities launched an intensive campaign of persecution against the slain journalist’s former colleague Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the now-shuttered independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri-language daily Gündalik Azarbaycan in Baku, whose published reports questioned the competence and independence of the murder probe.
Starting in early March, when he published his own investigation into the murder of Huseynov, Fatullayev was threatened, criminally charged, sentenced, and imprisoned; while he was in custody, authorities harassed his staff and closed his papers. By the end of an eight-month-long ordeal, a politicized court system had branded him a terrorist and slapped him with prison terms totaling 11 years.
Fatullayev’s case was extreme in its severity but emblematic of the tactics that authorities used to prevent journalists from pursuing sensitive subjects. The embattled editor’s saga started on March 6, when he received a death threat—an anonymous call at home that warned his elderly mother that, as a “wise woman,” she should “talk sense into him” or else, the caller said, “we will send him to Elmar”—a reference to the slain Huseynov. The threat came four days after Fatullayev published an article in Realny Azerbaijan accusing authorities of ordering Huseynov’s killing and obstructing the investigation.
Fatullayev reported the threat to both police and Interior Minister Ramil Usubov and asked for personal protection. Instead, he found himself in the crosshairs of law enforcement officials. In April, a Yasamal District Court judge found Fatullayev guilty of defaming Azerbaijanis in an Internet posting that the journalist said was falsely attributed to him. The posting, published on several Web sites, said Azerbaijanis bore some responsibility for the 1992 killings of residents of the restive Nagorno-Karabakh region, according to local press reports. Fatullayev, ordered to serve 30 months, was jailed immediately after the proceedings, the independent news agency Turan reported.
With Fatullayev jailed, authorities evicted Realny Azerbaijan and Gündalik Azarbaycan from their Baku offices, citing purported fire safety and building code violations. (Both papers later stopped publishing.) More charges against Fatullayev followed. On October 30, a judge in the Azerbaijani Court of Serious Crimes found Fatullayev guilty of terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. The journalist was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison, to be served concurrent to the 30-month term. The terrorism and incitement charges stemmed from a Realny Azerbaijan commentary, headlined “The Aliyevs go to war,” that sharply criticized President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy regarding Iran.
Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, said authorities have started to use retaliatory charges such as terrorism, extremism, drug possession, and hooliganism to target critics. The Fatullayev prosecution and the November jailing of opposition editor Geniment Zakhidov illustrated this new government tactic. Zakhidov, editor of the daily Azadlyg, was placed in pretrial detention on a spurious charge of hooliganism.
The use of criminal defamation charges, long the government’s favorite method of silencing critics, drew increasing criticism from international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the pan-European election, human rights, and security monitoring organization. Five of the nine journalists behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census were serving time for insult or defamation; in four of those cases, the charges were filed by government officials.
In January, Faramaz Novruzoglu of the independent weekly Nota Bene was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of defaming Interior Minister Ramil Usubov in a series of articles that focused on corruption in the ministry. In May, a Baku court handed 30-month sentences to Editor-in-Chief Rovshan Kebirli and reporter Yashar Agazadeh of the opposition daily Muhalifet on charges of defaming Jalal Aliyev—the president’s uncle and a member of parliament—in an article about the Aliyev family’s business activities. And in November, a Baku court sentenced Nazim Guliyev, editor-in-chief of the pro-government daily Ideal, to two and a half years in prison on charges of defaming the head of the Interior Ministry’s traffic department. After international protests, President Aliyev pardoned Novruzoglu, Kebirli, Agazadeh, and 100 other political prisoners on December 28. An appeals court freed Guliyev after voiding his conviction.
Official harassment and lawlessness in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic made it difficult for independent journalists to do their jobs. In September, Nakhchivan authorities seized, beat, and imprisoned Hakimeldostu Mehdiyev, regional correspondent for the opposition daily Yeni Musavat. In articles preceding the official actions, Mehdiyev had criticized authorities for recent gas and electricity shortages. He had also reported on corruption and human rights abuses by local officials, and had given radio interviews on political and social issues in Nakhchivan. In late September, Ministry of National Security agents abducted Mehdiyev, beat him, and warned him to stop his critical reporting. The next day, police raided Mehdiyev’s home and arrested him on charges of disobeying law enforcement; the same day, a local court summarily tried and sentenced Mehdiyev to 15 days in prison. No defense lawyer was present at the hearing, and the reporter’s family was not allowed to visit him in prison. Shortly after he was jailed, local authorities leveled the family’s teahouse and store, leaving them without income. Mehdiyev’s home was placed under police surveillance and the family’s phones were tapped, according to local CPJ sources.