New York, April 5, 2013--An Azerbaijani court has sentenced the editor of a religious news website to eight years in prison on charges related to his coverage of events involving the Muslim community. The Committee to Protect Journalists considers the charges to be fabricated and calls on the courts to overturn the conviction on appeal.
"The appeals court in Azerbaijan must overturn this unfounded conviction, and the government must address the progressively worsening climate for press freedom in the country," said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney.
Araz Guliyev is the editor-in-chief of the news website xeber44, which publishes news about religious life in Azerbaijan and international events in the Islamic world. The Lankaran Court on Grave Crimes convicted him under the Azerbaijan criminal code for "illegal possession, storage, and transportation of firearms," "participation in activities that disrupt public order," "inciting ethnic and religious hatred," "resisting authority," and "offensive action against the flag and emblem of Azerbaijan."
Guliyev was initially arrested on hooliganism charges on September 8 while reporting on a protest in the southeastern city of Masally, the reports said. The rally was staged by residents protesting dancers at a festival who they perceived to be not properly clothed, news reports said. Police arrested the protesters who were calling on the festival organizers to respect religious traditions.
Guliyev's brother, Azer, told Kavkazskiy Uzel that his brother's imprisonment could be related to his coverage of local protests against an official ban on headscarves and veils in public schools. The journalist's lawyers stated that upon Guliyev's arrest, investigators had planted a grenade that they later claimed to have found in searching his home.
Guliyev's defense lawyer, Fariz Namazli, told the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) that the charges against the journalist were not substantiated in court and that the witness testimonies conflicted with one another. The lawyer also said that Guliyev had been beaten by authorities after his arrest and that he was not immediately granted access to a lawyer.
CPJ appealed to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev last month, urging him to halt the country's crackdown on the press. Despite this and international pressure, authorities have persisted in jailing journalists reporting on controversial topics in the country.
At least six other journalists are in prison on fabricated charges. Azerbaijan has become the second leading jailer of journalists in the region, according to CPJ's prison census conducted on December 1, 2012 and the seventh worst jailer of journalists in the world, according to CPJ research.