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EDITOR JAILED ON SPURIOUS CHARGES

An editor of an opposition daily in Azerbaijan has been sentenced to four years in prison on politically motivated charges, say the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety (IRFS), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Genimet Zakhidov, editor-in-chief of "Azadlig" ("Freedom") was charged with hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm, and sentenced to four years behind bars in connection with an altercation with a stranger last November.

The verdict, given at a district court in the Azeri capital, Baku on 7 March, took Zakhidov's lawyers and family by surprise; they were not informed that the judge had reached a decision and no one was present in court on Zakihdov's behalf.

"The government of Azerbaijan is trying to incapacitate the opposition press and instil fear in journalists before the upcoming presidential elections," says IRFS.

Police arrested Zakhidov after a man and woman staged a brawl on the street near his Baku office on 7 November 2007. According to Zakhidov, the woman, Sevgilade Guliyeva, began to shout and accuse him of insulting her. The man with her, Vusal Hasanov, then tried to attack him. Zakhidov fought Hasanov off with the help of people nearby. Hasanov and Guliyeva later filed complaints against the journalist.

A few days later, police invited Zakhidov to testify as the victim of an attack; he was instead arrested as a suspect and has been held in preventive custody ever since. Hasanov got an 18-month sentence.

Zakhidov contends the incident was orchestrated by the authorities in retaliation for his writing, in which he has accused the President and other high-ranking officials of corruption.

Zakhidov's lawyer says witnesses gave contradictory testimonies during the trial and prosecutors failed to provide the court with any incriminating evidence.

In recent years, Azeri authorities have been creative in their usage of criminal law to harness inconvenient voices, says CPJ. They have been moving away from more traditional defamation charges and favouring more serious indictments such as terrorism, incitement of ethnic hatred, and drug possession.

Zakhidov's younger brother, Sakit, a writer who also works for "Azadlig", is serving a three-year sentence that he received in October 2006 on an unsubstantiated charge of drug possession. He is allegedly in bad health.

Both journalists as well as "Azadlig" have been the target of numerous attacks and court cases brought on by officials. According to IRFS, between 2006 and 2007, "Azadlig" has been fined more than 200,000 Manats (US$236,500) as a result of several "unjust, prejudiced court verdicts." The newspaper's director, Azer Ahmadov, told IRFS, "The government has been trying to silence 'Azadlig' for years. Employees of the newspaper have faced beatings, different civil charges and other pressures. (But) neither the newspaper nor its coverage will change."

IRFS is calling on the international community to help urge Azerbaijan's government to immediately release Zakhidov, as well as at least three other wrongfully imprisoned journalists. IRFS is also appealing to the European Council for a special rapporteur on political prisoners to be appointed and sent to Azerbaijan to investigate.

Visit these links:
- IRFS: http://www.ifex.org/fr/content/view/full/91479/
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/33tgpb
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26066
(Photo of Genimet Zakhidov courtesy of IRFS)

(11 March 2008)

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