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Two imprisoned journalists on hunger strike, health failing; WPFC awards them Fund Against Censorship grant

(WPFC/IFEX) - WPFC has awarded a Fund Against Censorship grant to fund the legal defense of Azerbaijan journalists Rovshen Kebirli, editor of "Mukhalifet", an opposition newspaper, and Yashar Agazade, a reporter of this publication.

On 16 May 2007, Kebirli and Agazade were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison as a result of the criminal defamation proceedings against them stemming from the publication of an article very critical of Parliament member Jalal Aliyev, a close relative of President Ilham Aliyev.

The article, published on 27 February, accuses Jalal Aliyev of corruption and mismanagement of agriculture fields. He reacted by pressing criminal defamation charges against the two journalists for "insulting his dignity."

The local Caucasus Media Investigations Center condemned the sentences calling them "politically motivated," an attack on freedom of expression, and a violation of the country's Constitution and of international treaties of which Azerbaijan is a signatory.

Kebirli and Agazade have joined seven other journalists in prison, making Azerbaijan one of the least press-freedom friendly countries in the world. The names of theses professionals are Rovshan Kebirli, Yashar Agazade, Eynula Fetullayev, Mirze Sakit (Zahidov), Samir Sedaqetoglu, Rafiq Tagi; and Feremez Allahverdiyev.

WPFC intervened on behalf of them both by sending a protest letter to President Aliyev on 22 May urging him to use his influence in order to gain the release of not only Kebirli and Agazade, but of all imprisoned journalists in Azerbaijan.

"The incarcerations of Messrs. Kebirli and Agazade and the rest of their colleagues constitute a frontal attack on the very press freedom principles whose respect is essential for the functioning of a democratic society," said WPFC Executive Director Mark Bench. "We hope this Fund Against Censorship grant will help these journalists put up a strong legal defence that can return them to freedom."

One day after the letter was published by the national media, Kebirli and Agazade started a hunger strike that is ongoing and has taken a heavy toll on both men's health.

This is not the first time Jalal Aliyev has taken exception to corruption reports by Kebirli's publication. In 2003, a "Mukhalifet" article revealed him as the head of a "grain mafia" and accused him of using his privileged position - at that time his brother Heyday Aliyev, the father of the current president, was the head of the Azeri state - to enrich himself. Jalal Aliyev hit back with a defamation suit that cost Kebirli a five-month prison sentence, which was eventually nullified by a Parliamentary amnesty.

WPFC intends that this financial and moral support will accomplish the following goals:

1. Enable Rovshen Kebirli and Yashar Agazade to put up a decent defence in court while they are risking their life by staging a hunger strike in prison.

2. Attract both national and international attention to an outrageous attempt to silence an independent publication in a country dominated by official media.

3. Attract attention to a blatant case of abusing the powers of the State, specifically the invoking of regressive criminal defamation laws that stifle transparency and foster corruption.

4. Attract international attention to the many difficulties the Azeri independent media face because of this and many other instances of official harassment and intimidation.

5. Send a clear signal to the government of Azerbaijan that their attempts to silence responsible journalists will have international repercussions.

6. Gain the release of Kebirli, Agazade and hopefully of their seven fellow journalists. The Fund Against Censorship provides financial assistance for legal costs to journalists who are the target of judicial harassment and other forms of intimidation.

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