No holiday respite for Azerbaijani journalists

While the world has been preparing to celebrate the New Year, the Azerbaijani authorities have launched a new offensive against the country’s few remaining critical journalists. Reporters Without Borders calls on the international community to end the impunity enjoyed by President Ilham Aliyev’s regime.

Did the Azerbaijani authorities think the rest of the world would be too distracted to notice? Just days after ordering the well-known investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova to pay an astronomical sum in bogus overdue taxes, they have brought new charges against the jailed blogger Mehman Huseynov and have put website editor Anar Mammadov on trial.

Due to be released in March, Huseynov is now facing the possibility of an additional seven-year sentence on a charge of “using violence to resist a person in authority.” The prison authorities claim that he attacked a prison guard in an attempt to avoid a routine check on 26 December. After they ordered him placed in isolation for ten days without letting him see his lawyer, he began a hunger strike in protest against what he says is a trumped-up charge.

Repeatedly harassed by the authorities for blogging about corruption, Huseynov was jailed in March 2017 for allegedly “defaming” the policeman he said had tortured him while he was previously detained. He is the brother of Emin Huseynov, the head of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a media defence NGO, who now lives in exile.

The persecution to which the journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been subjected for years was revived on 21 December, when a Baku court ordered her to pay 45,143 manat (around 23,000 euros) in taxes that the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty bureau in Baku allegedly failed to pay when she was the bureau chief from 2008 to 2010.

The claim is patently absurd. Ismayilova was never financially responsible for the RFE/RL bureau, and RFE/RL is a non-profit entity that has never made any taxable profits. But this does not seem to bother the authorities. Their priority is to apply more pressure on Ismayilova, who continues to do her investigative reporting on corruption at the highest level.

Released conditionally in 2016 after 18 months in prison, Ismayilova is still under judicial control and is banned from travelling abroad. She recently said she had been warned that she could be re-arrested. The authorities froze her bank account after transferring into it the sum of money that the European Court of Human Rights had ordered them to pay as compensation for one of the frequent arbitrary arrests to which she had been subjected.

“This new offensive shows yet again that the Aliyev regime will never stop persecuting its media critics as long as it feels free to do so,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and central Asia desk. “When will the international community finally decide to set it some limits? It is time to hold the regime to account for its actions and to consider targeted sanctions if it does not stop.”

In a trial that began today in Baku, Criminalaz.сom editor Anar Mammadov is facing a possible 12-year jail term on charges of “calling for the government’s overthrow,” “abuse of authority” and “spreading false information.” Mustafa Hajibeyli, the editor of the news website, is due to be tried on similar charges shortly.

The two journalists are being prosecuted for accusing the authorities of “culpable negligence” in connection with an attempt to murder the mayor of the western city of Ganja in July. Both websites were immediately blocked and several of their employees were briefly detained.

Azerbaijan is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index. The leading critical media outlets have been silenced or forced into exile, the main independent websites are blocked, at least ten journalists are currently in prison, and the activities of NGOs that support the media have been criminalized.

President Aliyev, who is on RSF’s list of “press freedom predators”, no longer hesitates to pursue his media critics even when they are outside the country. This was seen, for example, when the journalist Afgan Mukhtarly was abducted in Georgia and when the regime brought a defamation suit against two French TV journalists in Paris because they had dared to call it a dictatorship.

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Updated on 28.12.2018