"The politicized conviction of Rauf Arifoglu is yet another government attack against press freedom in Azerbaijan," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. "We call on President Ilham Aliyev to do everything in his power to have Arifoglu's conviction overturned and to arrange for an independent and impartial review of the charges and evidence against him."
The Serious Crimes Court in the capitol of Baku sentenced Arifoglu on October 22 to five years in prison for allegedly organizing anti-government riots that followed the fraud-marred election of October 15, 2003, according to local and international press reports.
Arifoglu, arrested on October 27, 2003, is the deputy director of the Musavat opposition party but his primary duties entail editing the party's newspaper, Yeni Musavat. A presidential adviser told local media in December 2003 that the editor was being detained to prevent him from returning to his journalistic activities. The prosecution introduced articles from Yeni Musavat as evidence in his trial, according to the independent news agency Turan.
Six other opposition activists were sentenced on Friday to prison terms of three to five years for their alleged involvement in the riots. The unrest erupted after authorities declared Ilham Aliyev, son of the country's ailing president, Heydar Aliyev, the victor with 80 percent of the vote. International election monitors strongly criticized the vote. Some exit polls suggested that Musavat's presidential candidate, Isa Gambar, received more votes than Ilham Aliyev, the New York-based Eurasianet.org news Web site reported.
"From the first days of the trial to the end it was clear there was no evidence of their guilt," defense lawyer Namizad Safarov said after Friday's hearing, The Associated Press reported. "No proof of their guilt was presented—only falsified facts."
Safarov said the defendants planned to appeal the conviction in Azerbaijani courts and, if necessary, to the Strasbourg, France-based European Court for Human Rights.
Journalists and human rights activists have told CPJ that they believed the criminal charges were an effort to silence an influential editor known for his criticism of government abuses. The journalists and activists cited weak prosecution evidence, numerous procedural violations in the trial, and a campaign to discredit Arifoglu in the pro-government press as evidence that the charges were a mere excuse to persecute the editor.
His health failing, President Heydar Aliyev began grooming his son as successor in 2003, a move that drew the ire of opposition parties and newspapers. In August 2003, the president appointed his son as prime minister, clearing the way for a transfer of power during presidential elections scheduled for October. Heydar Aliyev died in December.
Authorities escalated their harassment of the independent and opposition media as retaliation for reports on Heydar Aliyev's failing health. With the government refusing to release any information on the president's health, many newspapers questioned the president's ability to run the country—a development that pro-government forces saw as a direct assault on Aliyev. As the election neared, police detained reporters from opposition newspapers; violent attacks against the press also increased.
During the election, international observers noted many irregularities, including multiple voting and omissions from voting lists of those known to support the opposition. Pressure from the international community, as well as the presence of international observers, had little effect on security forces during demonstrations that erupted after the results were announced. Dozens of journalists were beaten or detained.
Despite the hardships, the opposition press continues to publish in Azerbaijan. Yeni Musavat, which already had the highest circulation among newspapers in the Southern Caucasus, increased its subscriber numbers even after it was banned from the state printing house and distribution system.