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IRFS responds to Canadian newspaper article claiming improved press climate, questioning journalist's complaints about mistreatment

(IRFS/IFEX) - The following is a 10 July 2008 IRFS press release:

Baku, Azerbaijan

IRFS EXPRESSES PROTEST AGAINST EDITORIAL ARTICLE RUN IN CANADIAN NEWSPAPER

OPEN LETTER TO THE GAZETTE, BASED IN MONTREAL, CANADA - "SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS IN AZERBAIJAN AND THE CASE OF PERSECUTED JOURNALIST AGIL KHALIL"

We, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), an independent press freedom NGO in Azerbaijan and member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange which is run by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, are writing to protest against the editorial entitled "Internal enemies of Azerbaijan are more dangerous than foreign one," which was written by Ahmad Mehdi and published in the Montreal-based newspaper "The Gazette" on 7 July 2008. Mr. Mehdi's article is a gross misrepresentation of the real situation in Azerbaijan and contains inexcusable errors.

Mr. Mehdi opens his editorial with a general comment about how the human rights and democracy situations in Azerbaijan are supposedly improving. However, IRFS would like to note that local and international human rights organizations report quite the contrary. On 24 June 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution 1614, in which it is stated, "the Assembly [. . .] can only express great concern about the deteriorating human rights situation which undermines any efforts made by the authorities to meet basic democratic standards in the forthcoming presidential election." In addition, in its 2007 Report on Human Rights Practices in Azerbaijan, the U.S. State Department wrote, "The government's human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas." Police impunity, arbitrary arrest, torture, persecution of the political opposition and restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, among other things, are noted as areas of serious concern. Similar concerns are reflected in reports from world-renown organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

Mr. Mehdi then goes on to claim that "some destructive groups try to cause instability in the region, to shake the deep relations between Azerbaijan and Western countries, and to hinder the realization of great regional projects joined by Azerbaijani." As evidence of this, Mr. Mehdi brings up the case of persecuted Azerbaijani journalist Aqil Khalil. Unfortunately, Mr. Mehdi does not even cite the proper dates when referring to Khalil's case, showing he doesn't even have a rudimentary grasp of the most basic facts.

According to Mr. Mehdi, "In February, 2008, Aqil Khalil wrote a news article and published by 'Azadlig', stating that he was beaten and knifed on the chest by the two high rank officials of Ministry of Internal Affairs at 'Zeytun bagi' (Olive Garden) in Binagadi district." In reality however, on 22 February Khalil was beaten by two high-ranking officials of the National Security Ministry, Akif Chovdarov and Dagbeyi Allahverdiyev, in "Zeytun baglari" (Olive Gardens). This incident was widely reported and well-documented by many newspapers and international organizations. In addition, secretly recorded footage of this incident is available on YouTube (see link in post script) and there are also photographs. Then the stabbing of Khalil actually took place on 13 March 2008 (the day Mr. Mehdi claims that case was solved), as the journalist was going home from work. This chronology is reflected not only on IRFS' website ( http://www.irfs.az ), but also the websites of the Committee to Protect Journalists ( http://www.cpj.org ), Reporters Without Borders ( http://www.rsf.org ), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ( http://www.osce.org ), and so on.

Regarding the "urgent investigation team" that Mr. Mehdi refers too, IRFS is left to wonder, is this the same team that Khalil reports subjected him to torture and prematurely released investigative material? At present two lawsuits are pending in Azerbaijani courts against the investigative team for Khalil's case, which was so "professional" and so "thorough", that according to Khalil, it slammed his fingers in a door, interrogated him for 19 hours and offered him a bribe to drop his case against the National Security Ministry officers that committed a completely illegal act by beating Khalil in a public park when he came upon them illegally cutting down trees. This investigative team also illegally disseminated to local TV channels investigative material, including material claiming that Khalil is gay (this is not widely accepted in Azerbaijan, which is a moderate Muslim country).

Regarding Mr. Mehdi's claim that Khalil received 15,000 USD from a political opposition leader to claim government officials stabbed him, IRFS notes that this claim is completely unsubstantiated and conforms neither to the official government line on this case - that he was stabbed by his former male-lover - nor to what local and international human rights organizations believe happened - that he was stabbed by people affiliated to the government in an attempt to silence him about the 22 February incident. For sure, no evidence has been introduced in the current trial (a horrific debacle of justice that conforms to no standards, local or international) or in any investigation conducted by local and international organizations to indicate what Mr. Mehdi says is true. And Mr. Mehdi fails to take into account that the opposition leader he refers to, Popular Front Party Leader Ali Karimli, has clearly stated that he is planning to boycott the upcoming elections, and therefore allegations that Karimli is planning a power-grab seem even more ridiculous.

At the end of his article, Mr. Mehdi states that Azerbaijan's presidential election will take place in November of this year. Regrettably, even this is wrong. In fact, presidential elections in the Republic of Azerbaijan will be held in October 2008, on the 15th to be exact.

IRFS would like to bring to the attention of "The Gazette" that Mehdi's editorial is now being misrepresented by the pro-government press in Azerbaijan. They tout the article as proof that Khalil's case was a set-up by opposition leaders, with complete disregard for the fact that the composition was published in the "Viewpoints" section of the newspaper. For example, on one website, http://www.versiya.az, citing "The Gazette", it is written, "The newspaper claims that 'Azadlig' Newspaper correspondent Aqil Khalil received a 15,000 USD honorarium from Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Karimli after the premeditated provocation."

In closing, IRFS emphasizes that it fully supports Mr. Mehdi's right to express his own position on any topic; however it is unprofessional, unethical and just blatantly wrong to present completely inaccurate and unsubstantiated information as fact, be it in an editorial piece or a formal article.

IRFS is perplexed by how such a slanderous piece of writing could make its way into "The Gazette", which according to the publication's own site has "award-winning editorial content." In reality, this article has done nothing but tarnish "The Gazette"'s image, and the image of award-winning journalist Aqil Khalil, who in June received Amnesty International's Special Award for Human Rights Journalism Under Threat.

In our opinion, Mr. Mehdi's article is intended to mislead the international community and to stifle criticism in the run-up to the presidential election. Unfortunately, "The Gazette" has gotten tangled-up in this ploy.

"The Gazette" is reportedly read by 69 percent of Montreal's population, therefore it is absolutely imperative to set the record straight for these readers. Hopefully, "The Gazette" will attempt to do this, by publishing this response and/or conducting its own investigation into this matter, which will surely yield the same results as those we indicated above.

Respectfully,

Emin Huseynov
Chairman, Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety

For further information, see, "Internal enemies of Azerbaijan are more dangerous than foreign one," written by Ahmad Mehdi and published in "The Gazette": http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/features/viewpoints/story.html?id=4148393c-5cb4-43b5-b498-caaa29f1d26d

Resolution 1614, official Council of Europe website: http://assembly.coe.int/Mainf.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta08/ERES1614.htm

Azerbaijan, Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2007, U.S. State Department website: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2007

Video footage of Agil Khalil being beat up, YouTube: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=422fu6Xn6P0

IRFS Special report written by IRFS on Aqil Khalil's case (pdf format, to download click on green arrow), IRFS website: http://www.irfs.az/component/option,com_remository/Itemid,32/func,fileinfo/id,16/

"Canadian press writes about stabbing of Aqil Khalil", article in Azerbaijani on the website versiya.az: http://www.versiya.az/?p=33

For further information on the Khalil case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/94729

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