The intensified persecution of critics in the past two months has completely eclipsed the Azerbaijani government’s conciliatory gestures in the spring of 2016, when it freed a number of political prisoners.
The new crackdown’s victims include Fikret Faramazoglu, the head of the Centre for Journalistic Investigations (JAM) and editor of its website, Jam.az, who was sentenced on 14 June to seven years in prison and a two-year ban on working as a journalist after his release.
Faramazoglu and his lawyer say the charge brought against him – extorting money from a restaurant owner – was fabricated by the authorities as reprisal for Jam.az’s reporting. Shortly before his arrest, the site reported that the police were turning a blind eye to illegal brothel activity
According to his wife and his lawyer, Faramazoglu has been tortured in detention and has lost at least two teeth.
Freelance journalist Nijat Amiraslanov met a similar fate. Arrested on 22 May shortly after posting criticism of the authorities on social networks, and sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention, he was reportedly almost toothless when he appeared in court for his appeal hearing on 3 June. His lawyer said threats and force were use to get him to withdraw his appeal and admit his guilt.
“Arrest, torture and conviction on trumped-up charges has become the norm for independent journalists in Azerbaijan, one that is indicative of a desire on the part of the authorities to deliver the final blow to the country’s remaining critics,” RSF said.
“All of the detained journalists must be released at once. This is urgent, especially as some of them are being tortured and have serious health problems. We call on the Azerbaijani government’s international partners to remind the authorities of their human rights obligations."
Journalists on trial
The journalists currently facing prosecution include Afgan Mukhtarli, an investigative reporter who is charged with contraband, crossing the border illegally and refusing to comply with police instructions.
He fled the country in 2014 to escape the crackdown on civil society then under way but was abducted in Tbilisi, the capital of neighbouring Georgia, on 29 May and turned up the next day in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, in the custody of the state border agency. His abduction has set a very alarming precedent for the dozens of Azerbaijani dissident exiles in Georgia.
Two other media professionals are currently being tried. One is Aziz Orujov, the head of the Kanal 13 Web TV, who was arrested on 2 May and is accused of illegal business activity and abuse of power. The other is Faiq Amirov, the financial director of the opposition newspaper Azadlig, who was arrested on 20 August 2016 and is accused of inciting religious hatred and tax evasion.
Amirov has a chronic stomach ailment and, after ten months in detention, is in very poor health. His condition worsened again at the start of June because of the lack of access to appropriate medical care in prison.
Online media outlets are also being hounded with renewed energy. On 12 May, a Baku court upheld the blocking of five independent news websites. They include the site of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri service, which was accused of “posing a danger” to national security after recently carrying investigative stories about the financial activities of close relatives of President Ilham Aliyev.
The other blocked sites include those of the opposition daily Azadlig and Meydan TV, an exile media outlet based in Berlin.
The powers of President Aliyev, who is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators, were increased yet again by a referendum in September 2016. His wife’s appointment as first vice-president in February was indicative of a desire by the regime’s inner circle to concentrate its hold on power.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.