Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate and unconditional release of
Rauf Mirkadyrov, a well-known columnist with the independent Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo, who was arrested on a charge of spying for Armenia on being deported back to Azerbaijan from Turkey, where he was based for three years.
“By illegally expelling Mirkadyrov, the Turkish authorities have rendered themselves complicit in Azerbaijan’s persecution of this journalist,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“The grave charges brought against Mirkadyrov are totally absurd and fool no one He is just the latest victim of the Azerbaijani government’s campaign to eradicate its media critics. How could this journalist have transmitted state secrets to which he did not have access?”
The Turkish authorities stripped Mirkadyrov of his press accreditation on 9 April and, without any explanation, gave him two weeks to leave the country. Nonetheless, he was arrested in Ankara nine days later, on 18 April, and was put on a flight to Baku the following day, without being able to challenge his deportation or even contact a lawyer.
Relatives and colleagues waited in vain for him at Baku airport on 19 April, learning the next day that he had been arrested on arrival on a spying charge. He was formally charged on 21 April under article 274 of the penal code (“high treason”) and was placed in pre-trial detention for three months.
His lawyer, Fuad Agayev, was then finally able to talk to him. Agayev said Mirkadyrov rejected all the charges and had refused to sign a statement.
Mirkadyrov is a seasoned journalist who won the Gerd Bucerius Prize for Press Freedom in Eastern Europe in 2008. A reporter for Zerkalo for many years, he is known for being critical not only of the Azerbaijani government but also the Turkish and Russian ones.
He helped found the opposition newspaper Bizim Yol, and used to be deputy editor of the newspaper Monitor, whose editor, Elmar Huseynov, was murdered in 2005. He is also a member of the Azerbaijani opposition, running for parliament in 2005 and now a member of the political council of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party.
Mirkadyrov has for years made a speciality of covering the troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region – a part of Azerbaijan with a mostly Armenian population that proclaimed its independence in 1991 – and has participated in various projects aimed at fostering dialogue among the parties to the conflict and finding a solution to a stalemate that has endured since 1994.
The officials conducting the investigation into Mirkadyrov on spying charges have named two Armenians as his alleged “contact officers.” One of them is Laura Bagdasarian, the head of the NGO Region, with whom several Azerbaijani NGOs have cooperated in cross-border projects.
These NGOs now fear that the Azerbaijani government intends to criminalize any contact with Armenian civil society. Agayev said: “The case may not be limited to Mirkadyrov, and other Azerbaijani politicians and civil society activists could also be persecuted.”
Mirkadyrov’s deportation came just three days after a state visit to Azerbaijan by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two countries have close relations. Another Azerbaijan journalist, Mahir Zeynalov, was expelled from Turkey in February after sending tweets deemed to have insulted Erdogan.
Harassment of news providers has been increasing steadily in Azerbaijan, which is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Outspoken journalists and bloggers are being arrested, while the few remaining independent media are close to asphyxiation.