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Government defies international duty to uphold free expression ahead of elections; take action for jailed editor

A plainclothes policeman detains an opposition activist demanding free speech in Baku, Azerbaijan
A plainclothes policeman detains an opposition activist demanding free speech in Baku, Azerbaijan

Reuters via Human Rights Watch

Azerbaijani editor Eynulla Fatullayev has been in prison since April 2007 on trumped up charges - despite a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment this year that demanded his release, reports the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS).

Fatullayev's case exposes the Azerbaijani government's failure to comply with its international commitments to free expression - and threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the 7 November elections, say IFEX members, six of whom have recently returned from a joint free expression mission to the country.

Fatullayev is serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence after writing an article saying Azerbaijan could support a U.S. attack on neighbouring Iran. He was found guilty of making a terrorist threat, inciting ethnic conflict and tax evasion. In July he was also sentenced to 30 months in prison on separate drug possession charges that he maintains are fabricated.

The ECHR ruled this April that Fatullayev's imprisonment was a violation of his rights to free expression and a fair trial. The government appealed the ruling, but on 4 October, the European Court's Grand Chamber upheld the 22 April judgment.

"As a member state of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan is obligated to comply" with ECHR judgments, says a letter to President Ilham Aliyev signed by 11 international free expression organisations, many of them IFEX members. "We call upon your government to fully comply with the ECHR judgment, including by immediately and unconditionally releasing Mr. Fatullayev."

To date Fatullayev is still in jail. Writing to commemorate the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (30 October) and to explain his recent 10-day hunger strike, he said, "I want to be a free man and I want to see all Azerbaijanis free. I exhausted all my means of fighting from prison; although it sounds paradoxical, I started my hunger strike for the sake of love for life, desire to survive, and as a protest against criminal behaviour, I had no other way of fighting but to start a hunger strike."

On 11 November the Azerbaijani Supreme Court session will consider the ECHR decision.

IFEX members have persistently condemned Azerbaijan for its heavy-handed treatment of independent media. According to members on the recent mission, the egregious freedom of expression situation in the country can be explained by a number of "worrisome trends", including the practice of jailing journalists and bloggers for expressing critical opinions; the violence against journalists and impunity for those who commit these acts; and the continued existence of criminal defamation laws. Plus, cases like Fatullayev's have a profound chilling effect on journalists, who choose not to write on certain cases because they fear a similar fate.

One editor who spoke with the mission reported that he had lost track of the number of times he had been threatened or attacked. Another journalist said, "The life of every citizen or journalist who wants freedom is under constant threat." In the regions outside of the capital, the situation for journalists is even worse. They face violence and threats regularly and most instances go unreported.

"There is a handful of independent media trying to survive in a pervasive climate of intimidation and fear, financially crippled and with insignificant audiences. Drastic reforms are urgently needed," said Rodrigo Bonilla, the mission coordinator from World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

The joint freedom of expression mission was undertaken by members of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan from 7 to 9 September. The participating organisations include: IFEX members ARTICLE 19, Freedom House, Index on Censorship, International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and WAN-IFRA; as well as Media Diversity Institute, Open Society Foundations, and Press Now.

The findings echo violations documented in Human Rights Watch's 94-page report, "Beaten, Blacklisted, and Behind Bars: The Vanishing Space for Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan". Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 37 print and radio journalists and editors in June and found evidence of dozens of journalists who have been prosecuted on criminal and civil defamation and other criminal charges. Police have carried out physical attacks on journalists, deliberately interfering with their efforts to investigate issues of public interest.

"A vibrant public debate is crucial to free and fair elections," said Giorgi Gogia, author of the report. "But you can't have a free and fair vote when the people who report the news are in jail or have been harassed into silence."

IRFS has been monitoring the media during election time, with support from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

IRFS is also asking that you sign a letter of support for Fatullayev before the Supreme Court considers the ECHR decision on 11 November.

A sample letter and contacts are available here
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