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Azerbaijan defiant in the face of criticism

A week after the Committee to Protect Journalists released its special report on the current state of press freedom in Azerbaijan, "Finding Elmar's Killers," Ali Hasanov, head of public affairs at the office of President Ilham Aliyev, told local journalists:

"Azerbaijan has done enough work to attain political pluralism, freedom of expression and of the press. We do not accept pretenses to the contrary. We do not accept reports, no matter which international organization is their author. ... The presentation of separate cases as a general tendency is, unfortunately, evidence that this is being done in someone's interest, to benefit certain interested parties." 

This has been the typical reaction of Azerbaijani authorities to international outcry against Baku's squeeze on independent reporting, particularly in the run-up to the October 15 presidential vote. The incumbent Aliyev is running against six virtual unknowns after the Azerbaijani opposition decided to boycott the vote to protest the passage of restrictive amendments to the election law. Aliyev is expected to win.

CPJ was scheduled to meet with Hasanov in May during a weeklong trip to Baku, but his office cancelled the appointment at the last minute; Hasanov had to take an emergency trip, his office said. Hasanov's aides also informed CPJ that only he had the authority to approve a CPJ visit to imprisoned journalists Sakit Zakhidov, Eynulla Fatullayev, and Genimet Zakhidov. The three are serving jail sentences on trumped-up charges of drug possession, terrorism, and hooliganism, ranging from three to eight-and-a-half years in prison. Their real crime, however, stems from their critical reporting and commentary.

Despite repeated calls to his office throughout CPJ's stay in Baku, Hasanov was never available; CPJ's request to visit the imprisoned journalists was also rebuffed by officials at the penitentiary service of Azerbaijan's Justice Ministry. The explanations given: a government fax machine was out of paper and, therefore, CPJ's request was not received; the request was received, but was addressed to the wrong mailbox and, therefore, could not be processed.

Last Wednesday, referring to the Zakhidov brothers and Fatullayev, a journalist asked Hasanov: "Three journalists are still in custody. Is their release to be expected or are authorities still considering them dangerous criminals?" Hasanov responded with a question of his own: "What journalists in custody?"

If authorities indeed do not consider these three men journalists, then why do they act as though they fear their written word even in jail? Sakit Zakhidov has resorted to writing his satirical poems and commentary on torn pieces of bed sheets and pants because prison officials refuse to give him paper. Several months ago, prison guards confiscated the manuscript of a book Genimet Zakhidov was writing in jail. Officials refuse to give Fatullayev opposition and independent newspapers.

Last Thursday, Fatullayev celebrated his 32nd birthday in prison, but with lifted spirits. He had heard all about CPJ's special report, his father, Emin Fatullayev, said, and was feeling optimistic and grateful for CPJ's attention to his ordeal. Isakhan Ashurov, Fatullayev's defense lawyer, is also optimistic--the European Court of Human Rights started the review of his client's case in priority mode. A prompt review of the case by Strasbourg is one of the recommendations in CPJ's special report. 

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