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Activist sentenced to two years in jail, newspaper loses appeal in Azerbaijan

(IRFS/IFEX) - On 12 September 2012, the Sabirabad Regional Court sentenced activist Ilham Amiraslanov to two years in jail. The court ignored evidence presented by the defendant and did not hear his witnesses at the trial. After the public prosecutor requested a sentence of two and half years in jail, the judge ruled for two years.

Amiraslanov is a member of the Kur Civil Society organisation and actively defended the rights of the victims of flooding of the Kur River in 2010. On 6 June 2012 he attended a meeting with Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Haydarov to discuss the problems of those who were affected by the floods. Two days after the meeting Amiraslanov was arrested and a criminal case was launched against him under Article 228.1 (illegal possession of firearms) of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code. He had been actively involved in investigating alleged corruption in the distribution of compensation to the flood victims.

In a separate case, on 10 September the Masalli Regional Court sentenced the editor of the pro-religion website, Araz Guliyev, to two months' pre-trial detention, according to information provided to IRFS by the editor's brother, Azer Guliyev. Masalli is a district in southern Azerbaijan, close to the Iranian border. reports on Islamic issues.

According to Azer Guliyev, his brother was charged under Article 221.2.1 of the Criminal Code, relating to "hooliganism". He was arrested at a protest by religious followers against the international folklore festival held in Masalli. According to an Interior Ministry report, on 8 September Araz Guliyev and Rza Agali tried to disrupt the event and, as a result, two Masalli residents and a policeman were injured and the windows of a car were smashed.

According to Azer Guliyev, his brother was arrested for covering the protests against a hijab ban in the Masalli region. He added that his brother was brutally beaten by police during the arrest. Araz Guliyev is currently being held in the Kurdakhani investigative prison and has not been provided with a lawyer.

In another development, the Azadlig newspaper has been ordered to pay a large fine in a defamation case. The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) strongly condemns an Appeals Court decision to deny Azadlig's appeal and uphold the original ruling by Yasamal District Court imposing a 30,000 AZN (approx. US$38,000) fine on the newspaper. IRFS sees this decision as a move to suppress critical media and reiterates that it is profoundly concerned over the abuse of criminal defamation laws in Azerbaijan.

The head of the Baku City Metro, Tagi Ahmadov, initiated action before the Yasamal District Court against Azadlig newspaper, claiming that his dignity, honour and business reputation had been "insulted" in an article titled "Tagi Ahmadov appropriated five kopecks", published in the 8 April issue of the newspaper. The article noted that after metro fares were raised to 20 kopecks it became impossible to use five kopeck payments previously loaded onto metro cards. Ahmadov asked the court to require the newspaper to issue a retraction and pay damages of 200,000 AZN (approx. US$255,000). On 13 June, the Yasamal District Court issued a ruling ordering the newspaper to publish a retraction and pay 30,000 AZN to Ahmadov in compensation.

The Appeals Court decision has the power of res judicata, meaning it is a final judgment and no longer subject to appeal. As such, the court has given Ahmadov the right to demand payment of damages at any time. IRFS notes that Azadlig has recently faced severe difficulties due to state control of the advertising market and printing and distribution facilities, along with large fines imposed as a result of numerous defamation cases. IRFS views the case against Azadlig as part of a broader practice and is deeply concerned about the use of defamation lawsuits to silence criticism, opposition or dissent, resulting in a chilling effect on the free flow of information in the country.

IRFS also notes that government and pro-government officials may demand immediate application of compensation orders and confiscate the assets of newspapers, as took place in the case of Khural newspaper, leading to an end to the physical existence of the media outlet. IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government and officials to be tolerant to criticisms by the media and to refrain from suppressing freedom of expression by exerting strong financial pressures. IRFS also calls on the president of Azerbaijan to use his powers to stop attacks on press freedom and urges international organisations to demand that the Azerbaijani government put an end to pressure on the press and fulfill its international obligations.

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