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Libel suits proliferate in Azerbaijan

(CPJ/IFEX) - CPJ is expressing grave concern about the proliferation of
criminal and civil libel cases filed by officials against the independent
and opposition press in Azerbaijan since the reelection of Heidar Aliyev as
president on 11 October 1998.

**Updates IFEX alerts of 15 December, 26 November, 23 November and 19
November 1998**

Dozens of civil suits have been filed by officials against at least five
newspapers, "Azadliq", "Yeni Musavat", "Mukhalifet", "Khurriyyet", and
"Ulus". The government has also launched criminal investigations against
newspaper editors.

On 15 December, a district court in Baku convicted the "Yeni Musavat" and
"Azadliq" newspapers of insulting the "honor and dignity" of President
Aliyev, and fined each 150 million manat (about US$40,000) in moral damages.
Reporters Sabina Avazqizi from "Yeni Musavat" and Beyuqaga Agayev from
"Azadliq" were also fined 30 million (US$8,000) and 50 million manat
(US$12,000), respectively. The justice ministry filed the suit for articles
published in both papers on 7 November, quoting a statement by former
President Abulfaz Elchibey, now an opposition leader, that President Aliyev
helped found the Kurdish Workers' Union, or PKK. The court also demanded the
papers publish a retraction and apology.

On the same day, a Baku city court agreed to launch a criminal investigation
into seditious libel charges against four newspaper editors by President
Aliyev's family. The court opened a case against the editors of "Khurriyet",
"Yeni Musavat", "Azadliq", and "Mukhalifat" under Article 121-2 of the Penal
Code, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years for publishing
"false and dishonoring comments" against public officials. The articles in
question quoted another opposition figure, Ashraf Medniyev, who claimed
President Aliyev was an ethnic Kurd.

Also on this day, "Yeni Musavat" lost appeals in two civil libel cases filed
by public officials. The paper was ordered to pay 200 million manat
(US$50,000) to Ramiz Mehdiyev, the president's chief of staff, for citing a
statement by Nizami Suleymanov, a presidential candidate, claiming Mehdiyev
was Armenian. In the second case, an appeals court enforced a 20 million
manat (US$5,000) fine against "Yeni Musavat" for allegedly libeling Nizami
Gojayev, an official at the ministry of internal affairs. The paper reported
on a police investigation into Gojayev's role in a lawmaker's assassination.

On 14 December, a Baku city court ruled against "Azadliq", requiring it to
pay a fine of 500 million manat ($130,000) under Article 7 of the Civil Code
for insulting fourteen public officials and relatives of the president. The
daily ran a series of stories on November 7 and 9 describing some valuable
real estate in Great Britain and France they claimed was owned by these
officials. Gunduz Tairli, editor of "Azadliq", was formally charged with
seditious libel under penal code Article 121.

Mahir Samedov, editor of "Ulus", has been charged with distributing
information dishonoring the president under penal code Article 188-2. The
offense was printing a speech by Rasul Quliyev, former speaker of parliament
now in exile who said President Aliyev had sold some regions of the country
to Armenia. The newspaper is also being sued by Rza Ibadov, a lawmaker, for
a commentary claiming he was responsible for the violent breakup of an
opposition rally on 8 November. Ibadov is demanding 100 million manat
(US$25,000) in moral damages.

The fines set in these cases are disproportionately large and the newspapers
face possible bankruptcy if they lose. In opposition to these trials,
editors from twenty one publications began a hunger strike on 18 November
that lasted for many until 4 December.

On 13 November, journalists who were peacefully protesting the trial of
"Yeni Musavat" outside the courthouse in Baku, were forcibly removed from
the area by police and at least four of them were injured in the process.

All of these cases follow a 10 November announcement by Azerbaijan's
parliament, the Milli Mejlis, to enforce the country's defamation laws
against media covering the government's crackdown on the opposition.

Recommended Action

Send appeals to the President:
  • condemning the use of criminal and civil defamation suits by the
    government of Azerbaijan as a means of muzzling unfavorable media coverage
    of its policies by independent and opposition newspapers
  • recalling that any legal statutes that make libel a criminal offense,
    especially those that call for prison terms, violate all international norms
    of press freedom
  • expressing the opinion that the use of civil libel cases to bankrupt news
    media into silence, in many cases simply for quoting the President's
    political opponents, contradicts all of his country's international
    obligations to respect freedom of expression.
  • adding that these cases are especially disappointing in light of the fact
    that in August of this year you signed a decree officially abolishing
    censorship, and suggesting they are evidence of the unofficial censorship
    which still reigns, since journalists and others are imbued with the fear
    that they could face criminal charges for criticising government officials
  • urging him to take steps to have the charges against "Azadliq", "Yeni
    Musavat", "Mukhalifet", "Khurriyyet", and "Ulus" dropped, and to consider
    the repeal of all criminal libel statutes in your penal code

    Appeals To

    His Excellency Heidar Aliyev
    President of Azerbaijan
    Fax: +994 12 92 06 25
    e-mail: [email protected]

    Please copy appeals to the source if possible.

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