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Three journalists in jail in Azerbaijan on spurious charges have been awarded Human Rights Watch's Hellman/Hammett Grants for persevering in their work despite being politically persecuted.

Eynulla Fatullayev, editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan's largest independent newspapers, "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gundalik Azerbaijan"; Sakit Zakhidov, writer for the daily "Azadlig"; and Genimet Zakhidov, editor-in-chief of the same paper, were awarded Hellmann/Hammett grants on 24 April.

Fatullayev was targeted shortly after he published a report alleging an official cover-up in the 2005 slaying of fellow Azerbaijani editor Elmar Huseynov. He is now serving an eight-and-a-half year prison term on trumped-up charges of defamation, terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred and tax evasion.

In March, Genimet Zakhidov was given four years in jail for "hooliganism". His brother and co-worker, Sakit Zakhidov, is serving a three-year sentence on a heroin possession charge. Sakit said a police officer planted the drugs.

"All three writers are behind bars, largely for doing work they believed in and for trying to inform the public," says Human Rights Watch. "We hope that this award will help raise awareness of their imprisonment and the need for their unconditional and immediate release."

This year, there are 34 award recipients from 19 countries. Recognition of the Azerbaijani journalists comes amid the deteriorating media situation in the country. For the past 18 months, the government has cracked down on independent and opposition media using serious criminal indictments, and moving away from more traditional defamation charges. Critics are worried that the restrictions on the media will make a free and fair vote in the presidential elections this fall impossible.

For more on the Azerbaijani awardees, see:

For background on the Hellman/Hammett grants, visit:
(6 May 2008)

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