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Two journalists freed from prison

After serving two years and nine months of his three-year prison sentence, Azerbaijani journalist Sakit Zahidov was pardoned and released last week, report the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"This is great news," RSF said. "It is a significant development for press freedom in Azerbaijan, a country ruled by President (Ilham) Aliev with an iron hand." Azerbaijan is ranked 150th out of 173 countries in the latest RSF press freedom index, and Aliev is one of RSF's "Predators of Press Freedom".

Zahidov, a satirical poet and journalist for the opposition daily "Azadlig", was arrested on 23 June 2006 on trumped-up drug charges and was sentenced to three years in jail in October 2006. Despite health problems, he went on hunger strike in protest, which only worsened his condition.

Upon his release, Zahidov declared that he will continue working. "I kept working in prison and will continue my criticisms of officials. Starting tomorrow my poems will be published in 'Azadlig'," Zahidov said.

According to local news reports, Azerbaijan's parliament passed the Amnesty Act to mark the spring holiday of Novruz. Up to 1,700 prisoners may be released under the act.

In a separate case, the appeals court in Baku annulled the verdict of a lower court and released Asif Merzili, the editor of the independent weekly "Tezadlar", on 9 April, report IRFS and CPJ. Merzili had been sentenced two days earlier to a year in prison on defamation charges. The same court also scrapped the six-month suspended corrective labour sentence against Zumrud Mammedova, a "Tezadlar" freelancer, who was sentenced on 9 April in the same case.

The IFEX members are calling on the authorities to free the remaining journalists serving jail terms on trumped-up charges. According to RSF, three other journalists are still in prison: Zahidov's brother Ganimat of "Azadlig", Eynulla Fatullayev of "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gundelik Azerbaijan", and Mushfig Huseynov of "Bizim Yol".

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