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COURTS CONTINUE CRACKDOWN ON MEDIA; PRESIDENT SUPPORTS POLICE BEATINGS OF JOURNALISTS

A Baku appeal court on 6 July 2007 upheld prison sentences imposed on two journalists for an article critical of Islam, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF). Azerbaijan authorities also charged an independent journalist who is already serving a 30-month sentence for defamation with inciting hatred. Meanwhile, the country's president told police they will not be punished for beating up journalists

Samir Sadagatoglu, editor of the weekly "Senet", was sentenced to four years in prison and writer Rafiq Tagi to three years under a criminal code prohibition of "inciting racial, national and religious hatred." The offending article, published in November 2006, argued that Azerbaijan's progress was due to the influence of Europe's humanistic and universal values, not Asian ones. It said Islam was an expression of Asian despotism and some of the Prophet Mohammed's pronouncements were aggressive, unlike Jesus's. In neighbouring Iran, Ayatollah Mohammed Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa threatening death, the BBC reported.

RSF comments, "These disproportionate sentences highlight the degree to which free speech is under threat in Azerbaijan." With seven behind bars, Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia and one of the world's top 10 backsliders on press freedom, according to CPJ.

RSF also condemned new charges of terrorism and inciting racial and religious hatred lodged on 4 July against independent journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gundelik Azerbaijan" newspapers. Fatullayev's previous 30-month sentence for "defaming" and "insulting" Azerbaijanis was upheld by an appeal court on 6 June.

In other disturbing news, on 2 July, President Ilham Aliyev told police academy graduates that he "banned sanctions" against policemen responsible for violence against journalists covering legislative elections in November 2005. In two separate incidents, policemen beat up a total of 26 journalists."By saying this, the president has come out in support of complete impunity," RSF said.

On 10 July, the Azerbaijan-based Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS) reported that imprisoned journalist Sakit Zahidov (Mirza Sakit) was on a hunger strike against prison conditions and inadequate medical treatment. Since June 2006 Zahidov has been serving a three year-prison on what IRFS says is a false charge of drug possession.

Visit these links:
- RSF on insult charge: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=20389
- Terrorism charges: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=22480
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/news/2007/europe/azer09july07na.html
(10 July 2007)

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