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Journalist sentenced to four and a half years in prison in Azerbaijan

(IRFS/IFEX) - 22 August 2012 - The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemns the sentencing of journalist Faramaz Novruzoglu to four and a half years in prison. This harsh sentence is clear evidence of the failure of the government to follow through on promised political reforms and a reflection of the ongoing repressive environment for those who oppose the regime, says IRFS.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release Novruzoglu and drop all charges against him, and to implement reforms to guarantee freedom of expression.

Faramaz Novruzoglu was sentenced to four and a half years in jail under Articles 220.2 (Appeals to mass disorder and violence against citizens) and 318.1 (Crossing protected borders of the Azerbaijan Republic without established documents or outside of border checkpoints). It is alleged that in 2011, ahead of the Great People's Day, an event organised on Facebook and scheduled to take place on 11 March, Novruzoglu, using the alias of Elchin Ilgaroglu, called upon citizens to riot, promising to burn himself during the action. In addition, he allegedly crossed the Azerbaijani-Turkish border and lived there illegally from November 2010 until October 2011.

Novruzoglu was also told to pay a 1350 AZN (approx. US$1700) fine imposed on him by a 5 November 2010 decision of the Narimanov District Court and 70 AZN (approx. US$90) in compensation for the expense of a forensic medical exam carried out during the last trial.

In a speech before the court, Novruzoglu claimed that his arrest is related to his articles "The whereabouts of Azerbaijani oil exported to Italy" and "Where do the candles imported from Russia go?", in which he was highly critical of the government. Regarding the charge under Article 220.2, Novruzoglu stated that he has never used the alias Elchin Ilgraoglu. Even scrutiny of his personal computer and three PCs taken from the internet café he usually visited did not reveal evidence of his use of the alias.

Novruzoglu also rejected the charge under Article 318.1, saying that he was not in Turkey during the time specified in the court decision, but did travel to Nakhchivan several times, going through Iran. He referred to stamps from border checkpoints in his passport, which he presented to the court. Novruzoglu also said he had already paid the fines and that the receipts verifying the payments had been given to the court.

The journalist alleged that his arrest is politically motivated and asked the judge to acquit him. The judge announced the decision against him after three minutes of deliberation.

Novruzlu will serve his jail sentence in a "strict regime" prison.

In response to the court decision, IRFS chairman Emin Huseynov said: "The verdict is yet another chilling indicator of the ever-shrinking space for free expression in Azerbaijan." IRFS believes the charges against the journalist were trumped-up, and his trial was held in violation of legal due process.

The organisation notes that law enforcement agencies recently suspended a similar criminal case under Article 281 (Public appeals directed against the state) against the young activist Elnur Majidli, who lives abroad, for his activities on social networking websites carried out to organise the 11 March 2011 Great People's Day and the 2 April 2011 Great Wrath Day.

IRFS deems it unjust to subject social media activists to trumped-up charges ahead of an upcoming Internet Governance Forum to be held in Azerbaijan in November 2012. Human rights activist Taleh Khasmammadov and journalists Zaur Guliyev and Vugar Gonagov are also currently in custody for their online activity.

IRFS notes that journalists in Azerbaijan are arrested for exercising their free speech rights on the internet, which is contrary to a declaration on Internet freedom adopted by the United Nations in June 2012.

IRFS additionally notes that 18 prisoners of conscience arrested in connection with the 2 April 2011 rally have so far been released, with the help of international human rights organisations. Only two prisoners of conscience, Shahin Hasanli and Vidadi Isgandarli, are still in prison.

IRFS calls upon the Azerbaijani government to release Faramaz Novruzoglu, along with journalists Avaz Zeynalli, Aydin Janiyev, Vugar Gonagov, Zaur Guliyev, Anar Bayramli and Nijat Aliyev, and to put an end to restrictions on freedom of expression.

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