Update : News website editor Elchin Ismayilli was sentenced on September 18th to nine years in prison on charges of “extorting money,” “aggravated abuse of a position of influence” and “corruption.” Describing the verdict as “baseless and illegal,” his lawyer said he would appeal.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is dismayed to learn that local news website editor Elchin Ismayilli has joined the long list of journalists held on trumped-up charges in Azerbaijan. At least 12 journalists, bloggers and media workers are now detained in this Caucasian republic.
Transferred to Baku following his arrest on 17 February in the central region of Ismayilli, the editor has been placed in pre-trial detention for an initial period of 24 days on charges of “extorting money” and “aggravated abuse of a position of influence.”
The prosecutor’s office accuses him of blackmailing a local official. Ismayilli insists that the charges were fabricated with the aim of silencing his local news coverage.
A former reporter for various independent media including the newspaper Azadlig and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, Ismayilli is the founder and editor of Kend.info, a website that covers local corruption and human rights violations. He has often been the target of harassment by the local authorities in the past, including physical violence, arrests and defamation suits.
“Baku’s international partners cannot continue to stand by while journalists are being packed into Azerbaijan’s prisons,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“The contempt shown by the Azerbaijani authorities for their human rights obligations needs an urgent response from the international community. A firm stand is all the more necessary because several of the detained journalists have serious health problems that are being exacerbated by imprisonment.”
No let-up in persecution
Eight employees of Azadlig, Azerbaijan’s sole remaining opposition daily, were questioned by the prosecutor’s office from 17 to 20 February in the continuing investigation into the newspaper’s financial director, Faiq Amirov. Many people have been summoned for questioning ever since Amirov’s arrest last August.
A request for Amirov to be released from prison and placed under house arrest pending the outcome of the investigation was rejected yet again by a Baku appeal court on 16 February, despite his serious health problems. His imprisonment has paralysed much of Azadlig’s operations and no print version has been produced since September.
The free speech group English PEN meanwhile reported on 17 February that the health of Rashad Ramazanov, a blogger held since May 2013, had worsened as a result of 15 days in solitary confinement. His family says he has lost weight and is not getting the medical care he needs for various ailments including tuberculosis.
A critic of the government on online social networks, Ramazanov was sentenced to nine years in prison in November 2013 on a trumped-up drug trafficking charge.
On 16 February, the supreme court upheld journalist Khadija Ismayilova’s conviction on a charge of “illegal entrepreneurship.” Well known for her investigative coverage of high-level government corruption, Ismayilova spent 18 months in prison, from December 2014 to May 2016, until her jail sentence was suspended.
Finally acquitted on three of the five spurious charges brought against her, Ismayilova continues to dispute the other two.
Azerbaijan is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index. In September 2016, a referendum reinforced the already considerable powers of President Ilham Aliyev, who is on RSF’s list of “press freedom predators.” Yesterday he appointed his wife as first vice-president, elevating her to the position of the country’s second-most senior official.