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Azeri authorities raid newspaper, arrest opposition journalist ahead of elections

The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) has urged Azerbaijani authorities to end their crackdown on freedom of expression, following the arrest of Parviz Hashimli – an opposition journalist and rights activist – in a raid by security forces.

The organization denounces pressure against politicians, activists and journalists in the run-up to the presidential election and calls on the government to ensure the poll is held in an atmosphere where Azerbaijani people can freely express their views. 

Serious human rights abuses undermine any meaningful prospect of a free and fair presidential election on October 9. "Democratic elections require a level playing field in which candidates can freely run and voters can make informed decisions. How can Azerbaijan hold free elections when opposition leaders, journalists and activists are behind bars and people can't speak freely?", said IRFS CEO and Chairman, Emin Huseynov.

IRFS resolutely condemns the detention of journalist and human rights activist Parviz Hashimli and the raid on his newspaper office on September 17 deeming it as pre-election pressure on the media and civil society and calls upon the Azerbaijani government to release him immediately.

Hashimli, a journalist for BizimYol (Our Way) newspaper, an editor of news website and the Chairman of the Center for Protection of Political and Civil Rights, was detained on September 17 by officers of the Ministry of National Security (MNS). On September 18 Hashimli was handed down a two-month pretrial detention sentence on articles 206.3.2 (smuggling) and 228.2.1 (illegal possession of firearms) of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code.

It is unclear exactly what prompted the arrest of Hashimli and raid on BizimYol newspaper. However, some experts said it was linked to a series of leaks reporting on developments in the state machinery, published on the news source shortly before his arrest.

Hashimli says that the charges filed against him are illegal and relates his arrest to his journalistic activity. His spouse, who was present during the searches conducted in their home, declared that the pistol and grenades "allegedly" found in their flat had in fact been planted there by the MNS employees. The presence of the journalist and his lawyer during the search was not ensured.

IRFS believes that Hashimli's arrest is connected to his professional activity, which is the direct violation of the article 46 of the Azerbaijani Constitution (freedom of opinion and expression) and article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (freedom of expression). This arrest demonstrates the Azerbaijani government's disrespect of human rights and its failure to fulfill its international obligations.

IRFS is shocked by the series of violations surrounding journalist's arrest, such as, inter alia, his being held incommunicado for 20 hours, his interrogation without access to lawyer, the fact that he was brought to court with a black sack on his head, the delay in ensuring his lawyer's presence in the court hearing and secrecy around the hearing which was held behind closed doors.

IRFS notes that according to Article 6 (Right to a fair trial) of the European Convention, to which Azerbaijan is a party, "3. Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights: … (b) to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence; c) to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require…".

"Bringing a journalist to the trial with his head enclosed in a sack is violation of human rights and a psychological pressure against that journalist. Hashimli's arrest predicts that the pre-election situation, which is already alarming, will grow tenser. International organizations must react to this issue" said IRFS CEO and Chairman Emin Huseynov.

Furthermore, IRFS strongly denounces the appalling raid on BizimYol newspaper's office, followed by the confiscation of a journalist's computer. IRFS believes this is a blatant violation of press freedom.

IRFS further condemns the MNS and patrol officers' violence against IRFS chair Emin Huseynov and Radio Liberty employee Islam Shikhali, who were filming the search conducted in Hashimli's apartment, noting the criminal liability under Article 163 of Criminal Code for hindrance with the journalist's professional activity. IRFS thus calls upon the government to punish the MNS and patrol officers responsible for this violation of media freedom.

IRFS is alarmed that in less than one month before the presidential election, the number of arbitrarily detained and imprisoned journalists has reached 9 in Azerbaijan.

"With this wave of arrests, the authorities appear to be attempting to pre-emptively silence independent news coverage ahead of the presidential election on October 9," said Emin Huseynov. "We call on Azerbaijani authorities to free all journalists behind bars and halt this never-ending effort to brand critics as arms dealers and terrorists."

IRFS recalls that prior to this the MNS had "found" Molotov cocktails, drugs and money in the homes of the activists of NIDA civic movement, which suggests that the same tactic is used against journalists and oppositionists.

IRFS urges the Azerbaijani government to stop the crackdown on human rights, especially the freedom of expression, on the eve of election and unconditionally release all the journalists, bloggers and youth activists who currently are behind bars.

IRFS further calls upon the UN, the Council of Europe and OSCE to make firm and demanding calls on Azerbaijan as a member state and take necessary measures once these calls are ignored.

What other IFEX members are saying
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