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Ensure detained journalists access to lawyer, family, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, March 28, 2012 - The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately allow two television journalists facing criminal charges access to their lawyer and family, and transfer them to a regular detention facility, Human Rights Watch and Article 19 said today. The authorities arrested the journalists, who are from the town of Guba in northeast Azerbaijan, on March 13, 2012, and have kept them for over a week in a police holding cell, without access to a lawyer and without informing their families of the journalists' whereabouts. The authorities have provided no explanation for the conditions or lack of access, which violate Azerbaijani and international law.

Vugar Gonagov and Zaur Guliyev work for Xayal TV, a regional station based in Guba. They were detained on March 13, remanded for two months in pretrial detention, and transferred to the Interior Ministry in Baku.

“There is nothing that can explain or justify why the police have denied these journalists access to their families for two weeks, are holding them in a police cell, and won't let their lawyer meet with them,” said Jane Buchanan, acting deputy director for Europe and Central Asia. “Locking up journalists or anyone else under these conditions has no place in a country that claims to respect the rule of law.”

The day of the journalists' detention, Musaffedin Guliyev, Zaur Guliyev's father, received a phone call from an unidentified caller informing him that his son was being detained in the Guba prosecutor's office. Musaffedin Guliyev told Human Rights Watch that he went to the prosecutor's office on March 13 and again on March 14 but was not allowed to see his son. A state-appointed lawyer called him on March 19 informing him that his son had been remanded to pretrial detention. He had no opportunity to appoint an independent lawyer to represent his son at the remand hearing.

Since their remand to pretrial custody, Gonagov and Guliyev have been kept in a temporary cell in the Interior Ministry's organized crime unit in Baku rather than at Kurdakhani Investigative Prison, the facility where pretrial detainees are held. Interior Ministry temporary detention isolator cells are meant only for short detentions of up to 72 hours before the suspects are charged and remanded to pretrial custody. Detention in these cells for longer than 72 hours is illegal under Azerbaijani law.

The journalists' lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, has been refused access to them. On March 23, Sadigov, who initially represented Gonagov, but now represents both journalists, went to the organized crime unit and asked to see his client. The duty officer told Sadigov that he needed permission from the General Prosecutor's Office. Although such a requirement has no basis in Azerbaijani law, Sadigov sought the permissions, but was told that because the unit chief was out for the Novruz Bayram New Year holiday, Sadigov should come back on March 27, and his request for access to his clients would be reviewed then.

When Sadigov returned to the organized crime unit on March 27 to see both Gonagov and Guliyev, he was again denied access. He said the officers there told him: “Why do you come so often? We'll call you when you are needed. There hasn't yet been approval from the investigators for you to visit [your clients].” Sadigov has also not had access to the criminal case materials, which will be crucial for him in preparing the journalists' defense.

“Access to a lawyer is a fundamental right for any detainee, but the Azerbaijani authorities apparently think they are above the law,” Buchanan said. “The government needs to stop making excuses and immediately guarantee Gonagov and Guliyev their full rights.”

The journalists' families have also not had any access to them. Guliyev's father told Human Rights Watch that he went to the Kurdakhani Investigative Prison on March 20 and was told that Zaur was not there. The father then searched for his son among the police stations in Baku and learned that he was being held at the organized crime unit. He asked to visit his son and deliver a food parcel for him, as is typically allowed for pretrial detainees. Officials denied him access and refused to accept or pass on the parcel. On March 27, officials finally accepted a parcel.

On March 25, a representative of Azerbaijan's ombudsman's office was allowed to meet with Gonagov and Guliyev, after a representative of a local nongovernmental organization called the Ombudsman's hotline and described the situation.

Because Sadigov has not been granted access to the criminal case file, he does not know for certain which charges have been brought against the men. One of the journalist's relatives was told by the state-appointed lawyer representing the journalists at the remand hearing that the men have been charged with organizing and involvement in social disorder and abuse of power.

The charges against Gonagov and Guliyev appear to be linked to their alleged posting on YouTube of a speech by a Guba official, which many believe was the catalyst for large protests in Guba on March 1. Guba residents apparently took to the streets in outrage over the speech in which the head of the Guba Executive Authority, Rauf Habibov, is alleged to have said, “Guba residents sell their children and the motherland for 30-40 Azeri manat ($US38-50).” According to media reports, numerous confrontations between protesters and the police errupted that day and unknown people set Habibov's house on fire. Habibov was subsequently fired.

Gonagov and Guliyev face up to three years in prison if convicted.

Azerbaijan has a long history of arresting journalists on politically motivated charges or spurious charges, apparently in retaliation for their critical or investigative journalism. In addition to Gonagov and Guliyev, five other journalists are in prison or pretrial detention in Azerbaijan.

“It's shocking that the number of journalists in custody in Azerbaijan just keeps growing, with seven people now either in prison or in pretrial detention,” said Agnès Callamard, executive director of Article 19. “This is a very troubling signal that Azerbaijan still isn't ready to live up to its commitments to freedom of expression.”

In prison:
Ramin Bayramov, editor of the website Islamazeri.com¸ who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in March for spurious charges of illegal drugs and firearms possession.

Aydin Janiyev, Khural newspaper correspondent from Lankaran, who was sentenced to three years in prison in November 2011 on hooliganism charges, apparently in retaliation for his journalism.

In pretrial detention:
Avaz Zeynalli, Khural newspaper editor, currently in pretrial detention on apparently politically motivated bribery charges in retaliation for Khural's critical reporting.

Anar Bayramli, a journalist for Iranian TV, detained on February 17, is in pretrial detention facing spurious drug possession charges.

Ramil Dadshov, who worked as a driver for Anar Bayramli, was detained separately but on the same day as Bayramli and is also in pretrial detention facing questionable drug possession charges.

In addition, journalists are frequently subject to harassment, intimidation, and attacks. Most of these attacks remain unsolved.

The government also limits freedom of expression in other ways, including breaking up peaceful protests, often with violence, and arresting and sentencing peaceful protestors, organizers, or participants. For example, on March 17, police detained two musicians from the popular band Bulistan, which was playing for participants at a peaceful demonstration after unidentified men attacked some of the performers. The musicians allege that they were beaten by police during their arrest and at the police station where they were initially held and their lawyer was denied access to the men in custody.
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