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Radio Free Europe journalist reportedly beaten covering demonstration in Baku

(IPI/IFEX) - 14 March 2011 - The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed disappointment following reports from Radio Free Europe that a freelance photographer working for its Azeri service was beaten by a police officer Friday in downtown Baku while photographing a demonstration.

Abbas Atilay said he was covering the protest - where demonstrators reportedly demanded the release of jailed journalists and activists, and the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev - when he fell down and a police captain began beating him. He said the beating stopped shortly thereafter when plainclothes police officers intervened.

Atilay told RFE's Azeri service: "When I wanted to stand up, [the police captain] began beating me very aggressively in the face and the stomach. At that moment, plainclothes policemen approached me and apologized, saying I was beaten by mistake. Then high-ranking police officials approached me and said there was a misunderstanding. They said the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] was on the scene and asked me to forgive them."

RFE reported that the incident left Atilay with a deep cut and bruises on his face. However, the director of RFE's Azeri service, Kenan Aliyev, said Atilay was not permanently injured and was able to continue covering the demonstration.

IPI Press & Communications Manager Anthony Mills commented: "It is imperative that journalists be allowed to go about their work freely, without fear of assault or any other form of intimidation, particularly when it is alleged - as in this instance - that police are responsible."

Friday's demonstrations followed a campaign on social networking website Facebook by young Azeri activists who sought to designate 11 March as "Great People's Day" and stage nationwide protests inspired by uprisings in Arab nations.

Police in Azerbaijan cracked down on activists in the days leading up to the protests, reportedly arresting dozens. Azerbaijan's Ministry of Interior announced that 43 individuals were detained in connection with Friday's demonstrations, and that another 50 were arrested in protests on Saturday.

In other news, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic on Thursday called on the Azeri government to stop what she called the "systematic intimidation" of jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev. She also called on the government to live up to its OSCE media-freedom commitments and to comply with a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights ordering Fatullayev's immediate release.

The founder and editor-in-chief of the newspapers Gundelik Azerbaycan, and Realny Azerbaijan, Fatullayev was transferred on 2 March to Prison Colony No. 1 in Baku, despite his petition to serve his jail term in another detention facility where he would feel safer. He had requested to be placed in solitary confinement, citing potential threats to his life given his history as an investigative reporter.

Fatullayev was previously incarcerated on charges of defamation and inciting terrorism for his writing, but the court in Strasbourg ruled last spring that authorities violated his rights to freedom of expression, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

In December 2009, authorities said they found heroin in Fatullayev's cell, and he was later sentenced to an additional two and a half years in prison. However, many believe the charge to have been fabricated to prevent his release.

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