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OFFICIALS USE COURTS TO SILENCE CRITICAL JOURNALISTS

A widespread attempt to silence opposition media is taking place through the courts in Azerbaijan, where public officials have filed at least a dozen lawsuits against journalists in the past three months, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI), the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres, RSF).

Five of the lawsuits have been filed by Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, who has accused Eynulla Fatullayev, Fikret Faramazoglu and Shakhin Agabeili of libel and insult.

On 26 September 2006, Fatullayev was sentenced to two years in prison, fined 10,000 manats (US$11,300) and ordered to publish a retraction. His newspaper, "Realny Azerbaijan", was fined 5,000 manats (US$5,600) in damages. Fatullayev plans to appeal the decision. Fatullayev had published articles in August that alleged ties between Usubov and former Interior Minister Haji Mammadov, who is facing murder and kidnapping charges.

Shakhin Agabeili, editor in chief of the newspaper "Millio Yol", was also sued for alleging that Usubov had ties to Mammadov. Usubov withdrew his complaint after Agabeili was convicted in a separate defamation case and after Agabeili apologised to him following a week-long imprisonment and interrogation.

In the other case, Agabeili was sentenced to one year in prison on 10 August 2006 for defaming a leader of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. On 23 October, Agabeili was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev.

Faramazoglu was sentenced to a suspended one-year prison term on 26 August and fined 500 manats (US$600) for libeling and insulting Usubov in two articles published in July. His weekly opposition newspaper, "24 Saat", was also fined 500 manats.

Faramazoglu also faces defamation charges filed by Dzhavid Gurbanov, a member of parliament who alleges that "24 Saat" published articles in August which questioned his relations with a former health minister who was arrested in October 2005 and accused of plotting a coup.

Other journalists who have been convicted or face criminal defamation charges include Sakit Zakhidov, a journalist with the opposition daily "Azadlig", and Samir Adigozalov, editor of the newspaper "Boyuk Millat".

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, has called on Azerbaijan to abolish its criminal defamation laws, arguing that civil laws are adequate for addressing libel.

ARTICLE 19 reports that Azeri officials have recently prepared a draft law that seeks to decriminalise defamation and sets out clear rules for civil defamation.

Visit these links:
- IPI: http://www.freemedia.at/cms/ipi/statements_detail.html?ctxid=CH0055&docid=CMS1161354783099
- WAN: http://www.wan-press.org/article12162.html
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/protests/06ltrs/europe/azer02oct06pl.html
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=19067
- ARTICLE 19: http://www.article19.org/pdfs/analysis/azerbaijan-defamation.pdf
- OSCE Report on Azerbaijan: http://www.osce.org/documents/rfm/2005/07/15783_en.pdf

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