New York, November 14, 2013--Authorities in Azerbaijan should release on appeal a journalist sentenced to four years in jail on trumped-up charges of hooliganism, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The conviction comes as Azerbaijan is scheduled to assume the rotating chairmanship in the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe in May.
The Khatai District Court in Baku today convicted Sardar Alibeili, chief editor of the independent newspaper P.S. Nota, even though authorities failed provide any substantive evidence or identify a motive, news reports said citing his lawyers. The journalist denied all charges and is appealing the verdict.
Alibeili told the court today that he was being prosecuted in retaliation for his journalism and specified one article in P.S. Nota, called "July 22 - The last day of free and national press," which he believed led to his arrest, according to Kavkazsky Uzel. The P.S. Nota article described the "dire state of Azerbaijani media ... and named enemies of the Azerbaijani press--an organized group of people in power," Alibeili said. The journalist did not offer further details.
Alibeili has frequently criticized President Ilham Aliyev and his administration in P.S. Nota and published commentaries by exiled politicians and army officers who accuse the president of corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarianism, according to news reports. Kavkazsky Uzel reported that Alibeili had posted a collage on Facebook that depicted Aliyev in handcuffs.
"We call on Azerbaijani authorities to release Sardar Alibeili, who has repeatedly been imprisoned in retaliation for his journalism," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said.
At least five of the eight journalists currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan have been convicted on politically motivated charges, according to CPJ research. The other three, Parviz Hashimli, Nijat Aliyev, and Tofiq Yaqublu, are on trial.
Despite its deteriorating state of press freedom, Azerbaijan is scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe in 2014, according to news reports. The Council of Europe consists of 47 member states, all of which "have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law," according to its website.
"Azerbaijan should work on releasing the journalists it holds as its chairmanship of the Council of Europe nears--not put more of them in jail," CPJ's Ognianova said. "The Council of Europe should push members to improve their records on press freedom before they are allowed to assume the prestigious leadership position."