This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 14 December 2017.
As Azerbaijan today begins trying a journalist who was kidnapped and brought back by force from neighbouring Georgia, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the international community to take a firm stand with its government in order to get it to stop hounding the country's few remaining independent journalists.
The trial of Afgan Mukhtarli, which begins today in the northern city of Balakan, is a striking example of the determination with which the regime goes after its critics. An investigative journalist and activist living in exile in the Georgian capital, Mukhtarli was abducted there on 29 May and forcibly returned Azerbaijan, where he was immediately jailed.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the authorities continue to insist that he was arrested at the border and have charged him with smuggling, crossing the border illegally and refusing to comply with instructions from the police.
All the requests that the defence presented at an initial hearing on 30 November were rejected. Mukhtarli continues to be held despite being diabetic and suffering from high blood pressure, and despite having lost a lot of weight.
Spate of hearings on media cases
December is proving to be a busy month for court cases involving independent media and journalists. Tomorrow, a court will continue hearing the appeal by Mehman Huseynov, a blogger who was sentenced to two years in prison on a criminal defamation charge in March for describing how he was tortured while previously detained.
Four days later, a Baku appeal court is to examine an appeal against the blocking of the leading independent news websites - the sites of the daily newspaper Azadlig, Radio Azadlig, Meydan TV, Turan TV and the broadcast Azerbaycan Saati - which have been inaccessible within Azerbaijan since May.
The trial of Kanal 13 TV chief Aziz Orujov, who was arrested in May, was to have continued on 12 December but has been postponed until an unspecified date. Prosecutors are seeking a seven-year jail sentence for him on charges of illegal business activity and abuse of power in connection with his NGO, the Caucasus Research Media Centre, which funds the TV channel.
On 8 December, the supreme court upheld an international travel ban on Khadija Ismayilova, a well-known investigative journalist who was jailed on trumped-up charges in 2014 and was freed conditionally in May 2016 as a result of international pressure. She cannot leave Baku and is banned from travelling abroad for the next five years.
"All these judicial proceedings are yet further evidence of how journalism is systematically criminalized in Azerbaijan and the most spurious pretexts are used to silence the few remaining critics," said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. "It is time to implement the individual sanctions cited by the international community so that the government stops flouting its human rights obligations."
Journalists hounded even in exile
The government does not hesitate to abuse Interpol provisions in order to continue persecuting the many Azerbaijani journalists have fled abroad.
Fikret Huseynli, a Turan TV journalist living in exile in the Netherlands, where he has refugee status, was arrested at Azerbaijan's behest while on a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on 14 October. He was released two weeks later but has not been able to get his passport back and is still unable to return to the Netherlands because the Ukrainian prosecutor's office has appealed against his release. The appeal is due to be heard on 20 December.
When they cannot get their hands on journalists who have fled abroad, the Azerbaijani authorities target relatives who have stayed behind. Emin Sagiyev, the brother of a Turkel Azerturk, an Azerbaijani journalist now based in the Netherlands, where he hosts a very popular Turan TV programme, was arrested on 17 November for "drug trafficking," a charge often used against dissidents and their relatives.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index. President Ilham Aliyev's government has gone all out to eliminate media pluralism in recent years. The leading outspoken media outlets have all been throttled financially or forcibly closed. At least 13 journalists and two bloggers are currently detained in connection with their reporting.