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President urged to investigate attacks on, imprisonment of journalists

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, May 26, 2012 – The executive director of the International Press Institute (IPI), Alison Bethel McKenzie, yesterday sent an open letter to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, calling on him to investigate reported attacks on journalists, to look into the cases of six journalists currently imprisoned in his country and to move forward on decriminalising defamation in Azerbaijan.

The full text of the letter appears below.

President Ilham Aliyev
Office of the President of the Azerbaijan Republic
Presidential Palace
Istiqlaliyyat Street 19
Baku, AZ 1066

RE: Recent Attacks on Journalists

Vienna, 25 May, 2012

Your Excellency,

As executive director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), the world's oldest global press freedom organisation, I am writing to express our concern over a number of recent incidents in which journalists in Azerbaijan were reportedly attacked.

IPI welcomed reports that Dr. Ali Hasanov told participants at a meeting at the Geneva headquarters of the European Broadcast Union (EBU) on May 2, 2012 that Azerbaijani authorities would fully investigate "alleged cases of jailed and mistreated journalists”. In keeping with that pledge, we urge you to follow through and to conduct a full and transparent investigation into reported attacks on the following journalists:

Idrak Abbasov: security guards for state oil company SOCAR beat Idrak Abbasov and Gunay Musayeva in April. Three others – Esmira Javadova, Elnur Mammadov and Qalib Hasanov – were also reportedly attacked.
Khadija Ismayilova: Ismayilova was the victim of a smear campaign in March when a video was posted on the Internet purporting to show her engaged in sexual activity. The posting of the video, which followed a reported blackmail attempt on Ismayilova one week earlier, was preceded by an article in the Yeni Azerbaycan newspaper attacking Ismayilova and her employers. Ismayilova has attributed the smear campaign to retaliation for her reports on alleged corruption.
Rafiq Tağı: Tağı was stabbed seven times outside his Baku home on Nov. 19, 2011 and died four days later.
Elmar Huseynov: Huseynov was gunned down on March 2, 2005 in the stairwell of his Baku apartment building.

We similarly urge you to look into the ongoing detentions of the following journalists to ensure that they are not being held in retaliation, or punishment, for work they have done as journalists:

• Vugar Gonagov and Zaur Guliyev: Gonagov and Guliyev have been held in pre-trial detention since their March 13 arrest following unrest in the region of Quba. Guliyev has allegedly suffered psychical and psychological intimidation, including the withholding of necessary medical care, at the hands of Interior Ministry officials.
• Ramin Bayramov: Bayramov is serving a 1 1/2-year prison sentence following his conviction on drugs and weapons charges.
• Anar Bayramli: Bayramli is imprisoned facing drugs charges.
• Avaz Zeynalli: Zeynalli is imprisoned facing charges of taking a bribe and extortion based on the as-yet unverified accusation of Parliament Deputy Gular Ahmadova.
• Aidyn Dzhaniyev: Dzhaniyev is serving a three-year prison sentence on charges of hooliganism.

Many international observers have alleged that the charges leading to these journalists' imprisonment were fabricated in response to their critical reporting. If true, this would represent a violation of their human rights, so we urge you to investigate these cases in order to resolve those allegations.

IPI also welcomed Dr. Hasanov's reported statement to EBU officials on May 2, 2012 that he agreed for the government to change legislation "to reduce defamation to a civil, and not a criminal, offense".

As you are aware, criminal defamation laws often serve only to obstruct scrutiny of the actions of those holding power and to deprive the people of the information they need to make decisions that will affect their lives for years to come. Civil remedies are sufficient to achieve justice when defamation is alleged and are in line with international human rights courts rulings calling for the least restrictive sanctions in such cases.

A firm commitment by your government to ending criminal libel would represent a unique opportunity for Azerbaijan to take the lead on this important issue and to serve as a positive example encouraging your neighbours and countries around the world to rid themselves of similar archaic laws.

As the world's attention turns to Azerbaijan in the run up to the Eurovision Song Contest, we call on you to use this moment to showcase how far Azerbaijan has come in recent years by affirming the nation's commitment to the rule of law and freedom of the press.

Yours Respectfully,

Alison Bethel McKenzie
IPI Executive Director

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