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Journalists at risk in Azerbaijan's prisons, newspapers face persecution

Reports have surfaced that raise serious concerns for imprisoned Azerbaijani journalists Avaz Zeynalli and Hilal Mammadov. Zeynalli, who was arrested in October 2011 on allegations of corruption, is reportedly suffering from several serious ailments. Although he has received treatment in a hospital at the detention centre where he is being held, both Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) have expressed concern for his condition and called for him to be treated outside the prison if necessary. Local and international human rights organisations believe that Zeynalli is facing trumped-up charges and that he was in fact arrested for his articles criticising high-ranking state officials.

In addition to the health issues he is facing, Zeynalli recently wrote to Human Rights Ombudswoman Elmira Suleymanova to complain that family visits are only granted if bribes are given to prison officials, that requests to visit him from several international organisations have been rejected and that he is often prevented from talking to his lawyer in private. Representatives from the Ombudswoman's office subsequently met with Zeynalli in prison. During the meeting, the prison administrators gave assurances that the journalist's petitions would be forwarded to the courts.

Meanwhile, Mammadov, arrested in June 2012 for drug possession then charged with high treason and incitement to national, racial, social or religious hatred, is reportedly being held in dreadful conditions. A case brought by the journalist against the prison administrators alleging inhuman treatment was recently rejected following a hearing in which civil society representatives were asked to leave the courtroom. Mammadov's predecessor as editor of the Tolishi Sado newspaper, Novruzali Mammadov, died in prison in 2009 after being denied medical care.

According to information received by RSF, Zaur Guliyev, the editor-in-chief of Khayal TV, has also been the victim of degrading treatment and psychological pressure at the hands of prison guards since his arrest on 13 March.

In June 2012, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to resolve the more than 80 cases of political prisoners in jail in the country. The resolution was drawn from a report by Christoph Strässer, the Special Rapporteur chosen to investigate the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Since his appointment in 2009, Strässer has been systematically denied a visa to enter the country, which he requires to conduct research in order to fulfill his mandate. The refusal to cooperate with a special mandate to this extent is unprecedented at the Council of Europe.

As detained journalists face harsh conditions while being arbitrarily held in prison, print media are confronting possible closure due to judicial persecution. On 4 September, the Gundam Khabar newspaper was ordered to pay 10,000 AZN (approx. US$12,700) in a defamation case initiated by Anar Mammadov, the son of the transport minister. The is the second time in little more than a month that IRFS has noted the use of criminal defamation laws against newspapers to intimidate and silence criticism, opposition or dissent. On 31 July, the Yeni Musavat newspaper was ordered to pay 50,000 AZN (approx. US$64,000) in a defamation suit launched by a company directed by the minister for emergency situations. In the Gundam Khadar case, the 10,000 AZN fine is being applied to a newspaper that is already in a critical financial position.

The Azadlig newspaper, one of the few opposition media outlets, is also facing possible closure due to financial obligations. In June, the newspaper was ordered to pay AZN 30,000 (approx. US$38,000) to the head of the Baku City Metro in a defamation lawsuit, while in January it was fined in another defamation lawsuit brought by Anar Mammadov. At present, the newspaper is behind on payments for utilities and publishing costs, partially because it has been unable to collect on monies owed to it by its press distribution company, which is also facing financial difficulties. Azadlig editor Rahim Hajiyev told IRFS that the press distribution system in the country has been virtually destroyed due to government policies that prohibit the sale of newspapers in the streets. IRFS is of the opinion that the state is applying strict controls over independent and opposition media in Azerbaijan. The sale of Azadlig has been prohibited in some regions from time to time.

IRFS has repeatedly called on the Azerbaijani government to tolerate criticism by the media and refrain from suppressing freedom of expression by exerting financial pressure on the opposition and independent media.

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