Zahidov's lawyer, Vugar Khasiyev, spoke to journalists outside the courtroom after the verdict was read. He called the decision "unjust," characterizing it as a political ruling aimed at punishing his client, whose brother is the editor in chief of "Azadliq."
"The court failed to present any proof of Zahidov's guilt, and instead the judge played the role of a notary, simply confirming the charges brought by the public prosecutor," Khasiyev said.
Zahidov's colleagues note that his arrest came just three days after Ali Akhmedov, the executive secretary of Azerbaijan's ruling party, Yeni Azerbaycan, publicly called on authorities to take measures to silence the journalist.
During a June 20 discussion on media freedom, Akhmedov said: "No government official or member of parliament has avoided [Zahidov's] slanders. Someone should put an end to it."
Throughout his trial, Zahidov insisted that he never used drugs. He claimed the drugs he was charged with possessing were planted in his pocket by police prior to his arrest. Saying that the charges against him were false, he said that "I do not ask the court to make my sentence lighter. I just want it to pass an objective decision."
Zahidov was originally charged with possession of a large quantity of drugs with intent to sell. However, during the trial the prosecutor reduced the charge to possession for personal use.
The court did not examine Zahidov for medical evidence of drug use. Doctors called by the prosecution as witnesses confirmed that they had not examined Zahidov. When Zahidov's lawyer asked them how they concluded that he had used drugs, they testified that Zahidov's nervous appearance at the time of his arrest was proof.
The case attracted international attention because of the nature of Zahidov's writing, which often satirized Azerbaijani officials and drew attention to corruption in the government.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) appealed to Azerbaijani authorities to guarantee Zahidov a free and fair trial.
CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in a letter to President Ilham Aliyev on October 2 that "we condemn this campaign of harassment of Azerbaijan's independent press and call on you to do everything within your power to stop it."
Elsa Vidal, the head of the Europe and former Soviet states desk of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, denounced the verdict.
"We regard it as a political sentence because so far the accusations have failed in proving that Sakit Zahidov has been using or selling drugs," Vidal said. "Sakit Zahidov is renowned in Azerbaijan for his articles and poems, which are very critical toward President Ilham Aliyev. So we are sure that it is a political sentence and we protest firmly against it."
Today's ruling was observed by representatives of the U.S. and British embassies in Baku and the OSCE, all of whom declined comment on the case. The ruling came one day after EU External Affairs Commissioner Benito Ferrero-Waldner visited Baku to discuss a joint EU-Azerbaijan action plan pertaining to the European Neighborhood Policy, including adherence to international norms of democracy and human rights.
Zahidov's case is the fourth in a series of court actions brought against independent journalists in Azerbaijan. In his letter to President Aliyev, CPJ's Simon observes, "In a disturbing trend, several public officials have filed about a dozen politicized lawsuits against critical journalists in the last three months."
Two major independent dailies in Azerbaijan, with a combined circulation of 38,000, suspended operations on October 3 to protest the current climate in which the media is working.
"Realnyi Azerbaijan" and "Gundelik Azerbaijan" published front-page statements denouncing the "police regime," and saying they were suspending publication in response to pressure and death threats directed at their employees.
On September 26, Eynulla Fatullayev, founder of both newspapers, was convicted of criminal libel and insult and given a suspended sentence of two years in prison.
The case was brought by the Interior Ministry. Fatullayev was a close associate of Elmar Huseynov, the editor of the independent "Monitor" magazine, who was slain in March 2005.
(Ruzanna Zeynalova of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)
A STATEMENT FROM THE U.S.-BASED COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS
'DEEPLY ALARMED': New York, March 9, 2006 --Two correspondents for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are being held incommunicado after being arrested on Tuesday, and the U.S. government-funded broadcaster said today it has lost contact with its entire network of correspondents in the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply alarmed by the developments and called on the Turkmen government to disclose details of the arrests, allow restoration of contact with RFE/RL journalists, and halt its intimidation of the broadcaster’s reporters.
MERET KHOMMADOV and DZHUMADURDY OVEZOV, who reported from the region of Mary in southeastern Turkmenistan, were arrested by local police and taken to an unknown location, according to RFE/RL and other published reports. Charges against the two journalists have not been disclosed, and authorities refused to speak to the families of the two men, the radio service reported. Khommadov and Ovezov reported on social, economic, and cultural issues.
'Doing Their Jobs'
RFE/RL said in a statement that its Turkmen service has been unable to contact its other correspondents for 10 days. The Turkmen service relies on about a half dozen correspondents, who file on an irregular basis from inside the closed country. RFE/RL Acting President Jeff Trimble issued a public appeal today, saying its correspondents “are guilty of nothing more than trying to do their jobs as journalists and report the news."
One of those correspondents, SHAMURAD AKOYLIYEV, was summoned to the Balkansk branch of the Ministry of National Security (MNB) in late February, when security officers warned him of the “unacceptability” of his affiliation with RFE/RL, the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights told CPJ. The exact date of the interrogation was not immediately clear, but authorities later cut off Akoyliyev’s telephone and the MNB began 24-hour surveillance, the human rights group said. Relatives were pressured to halt communication with Akoyliyev, the group said.
RFE/RL lost contact with Akoyliyev on February 28. Akoyliyev reported from the western Balkansk region, where he primarily covered sports.
Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed societies, and RFE/RL is considered the only independent source of news and information in the country. Authorities routinely persecute journalists affiliated with the radio service, private citizens who have given interviews to RFE/RL, and relatives and friends of RFE/RL journalists, according to CPJ research. Most RFE/RL correspondents use pseudonyms to avoid official harassment, which includes threats, detentions, interrogations, surveillance, torture, and imprisonment.
“We’re alarmed by Turkmen authorities’ actions against our colleagues Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov, and we are very concerned that RFE/RL cannot contact its correspondents,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on authorities to disclose the whereabouts and all other details concerning Ovezov and Khommadov and to release the journalists immediately. We also call on government officials to halt their campaign of intimidation against RFE/RL journalists and allow them to do their jobs.”
( www.cpj.org )