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Azerbaijan: RFE/RL Journalist Jailed For 'Slandering' Police

RFE/RL correspondent Ilgar Nasibov (RFE/RL) An RFE/RL correspondent in Azerbaijan, Ilgar Nasibov, was jailed on December 6 after being summarily sentenced to 90 days in prison on what rights groups call trumped-up and politicized charges.

The charges of slandering local police officers stem from a letter Nasibov wrote to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev protesting police brutality in the southwestern Azerbaijani exclave of Naxchivan.

Nasibov is the tenth journalist currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan, which has drawn sharp criticism from human rights organizations and Western governments over repression of the media.

Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the arrest marks the continuation of a disturbing trend in which "independent and opposition journalists" have faced harassment. "Azerbaijan has become quickly, in the last 12 months, the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia," Ognianova said. "This is a disturbing trend because most of the journalists are imprisoned on politicized charges initiated by public officials."

Journalists 'Not Behaving'

On November 4, Nasibov and his wife Malahat Nasibova, also a RFE/RL correspondent, were reporting from a market in Naxchivan that police were attempting to close down. When shoppers and merchants staged a protest, police responded with force.

When Nasibov and Nasibova tried to interview those participating in the protest, police threatened them and tried to confiscate their cameras and recording equipment. Nasibov recorded Naxchivan deputy police chief Irshad Ibrahimov threatening him, saying: "You are not behaving. You know what will happen to you."

Nasibov, who is also a local human rights activist, sent a letter to Aliyev's website protesting what he called police harassment.

The local police chief, Sabuhi Novruzov, then filed criminal slander charges against Nasibov. But when the journalist appeared in court on December 4, he was told the charges had been dropped.

Nasibov was summoned to appear in court again today, but was told it was simply to formalize the dismissal of the charges. But when he showed up in court without a lawyer, he was summarily sentenced to 90 days in prison.

RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin called for Nasibov's immediate release, calling his imprisonment a "complete mockery of due process which violates Azerbaijan's own lawful, judicial procedure."

Rashid Hajili, a lawyer with the Media Freedom Institute in Naxchivan, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that trying and sentencing Nasibov without giving him access to an attorney was a violation of his rights. "A lawyer should have been present," Hajili said. "Especially when you are talking about arresting someone. In this case, if the defendant wants a lawyer, he must have access to one."

Malahat Nasibova told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that police forcefully entered the couple's apartment after Nasibov's imprisonment and confiscated his computer, disks, and files. She said police refused to present a warrant.

Crackdown On The Press

In the past year, Azerbaijan has witnessed a wave of criminal cases against opposition journalists.

On October 30, Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor of the publications "Gyundelik Azerbaycan" and "Realny Azerbaijan," was handed an 8 1/2-year jail sentence for terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. Both newspapers routinely reported and condemned official corruption.

And on November 11, Qanimat Zahidov, an editor for the opposition daily "Azadliq" and a vocal critic of President Ilham Aliyev's regime, was sent to pretrial detention.

Zahidov will spend two months in remand in the Azerbaijani capital as he awaits trial on charges of "hooliganism" and inflicting "minor bodily harm." If found guilty of both charges, he could face up to six years in prison. The charges stem from an incident in which Zahidov was attacked by a man and woman outside his newspaper's Baku office. When he went to the police to report the attack, he was arrested.

The Naxchivan region is separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenia. It is run like a personal fiefdom by regional head Vasif Talibov, who is a close relative of President Aliyev. Critics say he has become increasingly closed and repressive.

Opposition activists and independent journalists face constant harassment in Naxchivan. Local authorities have also ordered state employees -- including teachers and doctors -- to perform manual labor on weekends as a condition for keeping their jobs.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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