Independent editor Eynulla Fatullayev, a CPJ award recipient, spent four years in prison on spurious charges of defamation, terrorism, tax evasion, and drug possession. All were fabricated to prevent him from publishing his searing exposés critical of the Azerbaijani government. On Thursday, after years of intense advocacy by CPJ and others, Fatullayev received a presidential pardon and was freed. "Although it took far too long," said CPJ board member Gwen Ifill, "we are deeply gratified at Fatullayev's release, and look forward to the moment when we can hand him his 2009 press freedom award in person." Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova reached Fatullayev at his Baku home today and talked with him about his experience as a political prisoner and the circumstances surrounding his sudden release.
Q: Yesterday, you were released from prison, after having spent four years behind bars on trumped-up charges. How do you feel?
A: I am still in disbelief. My release was sudden. Of course I hoped for it, but I didn't expect it.
Q: Tell us about your treatment in prison.
A: During these four years, I was subjected to various provocations that were apparently carried out on the political order of the highest level. The government was especially angered after the European Court of Human Rights ordered my immediate release [in March 2010]. In the months after the decision was published, I was sent to solitary confinement multiple times, under different, ridiculous pretexts.
Q: Give us an example.
A: For instance, I was told once that I was smoking on the wrong floor. And for that I received three days in the solitary. This was selective treatment; none of the other inmates would get such severe punishment for such minor violations.
Q: You were sent to several different jails. Why was the penitentiary service moving you around and how did prison administrators explain that?
A: In the beginning of my imprisonment, I spent two months in a Baku pre-trial detention center. Then I was transferred to a prison facility run by the Azerbaijani security service (MNB)--this was a military prison. The conditions there were very strict--for instance, I was banned from communicating with the outside world; I couldn't send or receive any letters; my family was prevented from visiting me; and I couldn't read newspapers. In the nine months I spent there, I was in total isolation. That, as well as the frequent 'trips' to the solitary, were no doubt intended to exhaust me physically and psychologically. After that, I was moved Prison Colony No. 12, then back to a Baku pre-trial detention center, and finally to the Strict Regime Penal Colony No. 1.
Q: Did prison administrators explain why you were being moved around?
A: They were quite candid. They would say, 'You understand, the country is in a pre-election mood, and you are a hazard.' This was the most worrisome part for me--that they weren't even trying to hide behind some pretext. They would directly tell me that they were following orders.
Q: Whose orders?
A: That they wouldn't say. They would just say that those were orders "from above."
Q: At one point, you asked to be put in solitary confinement. Tell us why.
A: This was the most terrible part of my time in jail--my deliberate move to Strict Regime Penal Colony No. 1. This is a place where the most dangerous of criminals are locked up--murderers, heads of organized crime groups, repeat offenders...people who can be bought easily to do someone else's bidding. And they are. The day I was transferred to that prison, I was put in a area next to several criminal authorities. (I was on hunger strike at the time, protesting my continued detention despite the European Court's decision to free me.) My new cell neighbors then told me that I must stop my hunger strike and stop my statements from prison "or else things will end very badly for me."
Then and there I knew that I was in physical danger and I may not get out of there alive. I was forced to ask the warden to move me to solitary confinement for my own protection. At first, the prison administration denied my request but I continued to insist, citing Azerbaijani law that obligated penitentiary officials to ensure the safety of inmates, particularly when they have received threats.
Q: How long were you in the solitary? What were the conditions there?
A: I spent the entire month of March there. The conditions were heavy. It was very cold and the rat population was ample. I would wake up in the middle of the night, invaded by them, and I would have to wrestle my way back to peace. My health also suffered because of that.
Q: Tell us about your health.
A: I didn't want to talk about my health while I was in jail, not even to my lawyers, because I didn't want to worry my parents. But, yes, there were problems. The cold and the unsanitary conditions in the prisons took their toll. I contracted a number of urinary diseases, skin and internal infections... At one point I got an abscess on my leg--the result of an infection--which had to be operated on.
Q: Did you receive medical treatment when you needed it?
A: I did. But I frequently fell ill. At one point, doctors treated a case of what had become a chronic cystitis [inflammation of the urinary bladder] for the duration of nine months before I got better. It was because of the cold. It was always very cold...
Q: Were you hospitalized?
A: No, I refused it. I feared that some provocation against me may be organized there.
Q: Did you ask the president to pardon you?
A: No, I never did.
Q: Who told you that you were free to go. Tell us how it happened.
A: Yesterday, at around 6 p.m., the head warden of Strict Regime Penal Colony No. 1, Gakhraman Bagirov, told me to pick up my things and go with him. Then, just like that, he put me in a car and personally drove me home. He told me the president had just signed a decree to pardon me.
Q: Are there any conditions to your release?
Q: Did you feel the support of the international community from behind the prison walls?
A: The fact that I am alive and free today is without any exaggeration due to the relentless campaign of the international community to release me. I am in particular grateful to CPJ because you never got tired of advocating on my behalf, of supporting me and my family when we needed that the most. All your actions, all your statements, your visits to Azerbaijan, to the Azerbaijani Embassy ... all that gave me an enormous morale boost. Your actions kept the public attention on my case. And that, in a sense, gave me immunity. I believe it literally saved my life.
Q: How did you learn about the actions of the international community in your support?
A: My lawyers told me everything. I knew of all your statement, petitions, meetings, etc. And I was impressed by the principled position of CPJ--you were the first organization that declared my imprisonment politically motivated. You cannot realize what if feels like to have that kind of support when you are in isolation. You cannot realize the level at which it matters.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: You know, journalism is my calling. Many people have been asking me since my release whether I will continue my work as an editor, whether I will restart publishing my newspapers. My reply to this is such: If the Azerbaijani authorities can guarantee me that I will be able to publish independently, without any attempts to influence my editorial line, then, yes, I will gladly return to journalism.
Right now, though, I am still in the euphoria of being free, of being surrounded by family and friends. I would like to take some time to rest and enjoy.
(Reporting from Moscow)