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"Azadlig" newspaper editor-in-chief sentenced at secret hearing to four years in prison for alleged "hooliganism"

(IRFS/IFEX) - IRFS condemns Yasamal District Court Judge Sudaba Mammedova's decision to imprison "Azadlig" newspaper editor-in-chief Ganimat Zahid for four years.

On 7 March 2008, Mammedova convicted Zahid under articles 127.2.3 and 221 - hooliganism and intentional inflicting of minor bodily harm - for his involvement in an altercation which Zahid and his lawyers say was orchestrated by the authorities in retaliation for his writing. IRFS believes that this verdict, which was handed down in a secretly-held court hearing, is yet another indication of the Azerbaijani government's animosity towards Zahid.

According to Zahid's wife, Ayanda Mursaliyeva, Zahid was secretly brought to court at 11:00 a.m. (local time) and the verdict was read. The journalist's wife, his lawyers and journalists were not informed about the hearing. Vusal Hasanov, who was the other participant in the altercation that led to this criminal case, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Throughout the entire course of the trial, during which no evidence to prove Zahid's guilt was introduced, only one of the defense's numerous petitions was fulfilled. Another provocation was also conducted against Zahid in February 2005. Several days after that, "Monitor" journal editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov was murdered (see IFEX alerts of 6 November, 8 and 5 March 2007, and others). In 2006, Zahid's brother, Sakit Zahidov, was imprisoned on spurious charges of drug possession (see alerts of 6 February 2008, 22 October and 3 April 2007, 11 December 2006 and others), and in the same year "Azadlig" newspaper lost its building to the government through a calculated and unfair court trial.

Between 2006 and 2007, as a result of numerous unjust, prejudiced court verdicts adopted on lawsuits filed against the newspaper by government officials, over 200,000 AZN (approx. US$237,000) in fines were levied against "Azadlig". Over the last three years "Azadlig" employees have also been subjected to numerous attacks, threats, and even attempted murders. Despite this, until his arrest, Zahid continued to lead "Azadlig", which publishes some of the most critical articles about Azerbaijan's leaders and high-ranking government officials.

IRFS believes that the government of Azerbaijan is trying to incapacitate the opposition press and instil fear in journalists before the upcoming presidential elections. Ganimat Zahid's arrest and other similar actions show the Azerbaijani government's ill will towards the press and its influence over the court system. By throwing Zahid in prison, the government has once again shown that is has no intention of fulfilling its obligations in the areas of human rights or press freedom.

IRFS calls on the international community to urge Azerbaijan's government to release Zahid and Azerbaijan's other wrongfully imprisoned journalists: Eynulla Fatullayev (see alerts of 17 January 2008, 30 October, 7 September, 27 August, 6 July and 8 June 2007, and others), Sakit Zahidov, and Mushfig Huseynov (see alerts of 21 January 2008, 5 November 2007). IRFS also appeals to the European Council, asking that in light of the critical situation here, a special rapporteur on political prisoners be appointed in the near future and sent to Azerbaijan to investigate the situation.

IRFS calls on Azerbaijan's government to immediately release Ganimat Zahid, as well as Azerbaijan's other wrongfully imprisoned journalists, and to fulfill its international obligations in the areas of human rights and press freedom.

IRFS contacted "Azadlig" newspaper head director, Azer Ahmadov, for his position on Zahid's prison sentence. Ahmadov said, "There is no logic to the pressures from this government. The government has been trying to silence 'Azadlig' for years. Employees of the newspaper have faced beatings, different civil charges and other pressures. Neither the newspaper nor its coverage will change, even if Ganimat gets 14 years' imprisonment instead of four."

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