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In 'Azerbaijan's North Korea,' Journalist Crackdown Continues

RFE/RL's Malahat Nasibova interviews witnesses after merchants clashed with police (RFE/RL) Authorities in Azerbaijan's exclave of Naxcivan are continuing a strict crackdown against opposition journalists in the region.

Police on December 7 interrogated two journalists, one day after another was detained and a fourth, RFE/RL correspondent Ilgar Nasibov, was sentenced on slander charges.

Nasibov was arrested and summarily sentenced to 90 days in prison on December 6 on charges of slandering police officers after he sent an e-mail to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev complaining about police harassment of journalists in Naxcivan.

Nasibov's wife, Malahat Nasibova, says she cannot find out where he is being incarcerated. His family has received neither a copy of the indictment against him nor the court's verdict.

Nasibova, who is also an RFE/RL correspondent, was detained and interrogated early on December 7 together with Mohammad Rzayev, a reporter for the opposition newspaper "Azadliq." Both were released after being questioned for approximately an hour.

A fourth journalist, Elman Abbasov, remains in police custody after police raided his home on the evening of December 6, confiscated his computer, and brought him into detention.

Media watchdogs, human rights groups, and Western governments have harshly criticized Azerbaijan this year for the harassment and imprisonment of opposition journalists. With his sentencing, Nasibov became the 10th journalist currently behind bars in the country.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called Azerbaijan "the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia." And the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called Nasibov's imprisonment "utterly illegal," adding that "justice demands that he be freed at once."

'A Region Without Rights'

RSF's Marie-Valentine Bourrat says Azerbaijan places near the bottom of the group's press-freedom rankings, and that Naxchivan is among the most repressive regions in the country.

"Naxcivan is a place where brutality against journalists happens very often," Bourrat tells RFE/RL. "It is considered a region without rights. There are no rights respected there. The law is not applied. There is no freedom of expression."

The Naxcivan region is an exclave 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.

Azerbaijanis refer to the closed and repressive region, where opposition activists and independent journalists face constant harassment, as "Azerbaijan's North Korea."

A series of abuses -- some of them bizarre -- have been documented in media reports.

According to the reports, local authorities have ordered state employees to perform manual labor on weekends as a condition for keeping their jobs. People who fail to pay utility bills have been seized and tied to trees outside police precincts until a family member or friend can come and settle the debt. Residents are forbidden from hanging laundry from their balconies and from baking bread at home. In a region where average salaries are approximately $130 per month, farmers are charged a steep tax for owning more than one cow or one sheep -- $25 per cow, $10 per sheep.

Nasibova tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that local authorities are seeking to silence journalists like her and her husband who have reported on these abuses. She said she expects to be arrested soon.

"I think their main goal is to force us [independent journalists] out of Naxcivan," Nasibova says. "While they were searching our apartment, the police told us: 'We will succeed in silencing you. You will have to leave the region.' I think this process is related to our professional activities here."

Nasibova says police forcefully entered the apartment she shares with her husband on December 6, frightening the couple's three children. They confiscated the family's computer, disks, and files.

Nasibova was briefly detained as she and Rzayev tried to bring a food parcel to Nasibov at the local custody center. They were told Nasibov was being held at the Interior Ministry. But when they went to the Interior Ministry, they were told he was not there either, so they returned to the detention center.

When the two were driving away, a car blocked their path and two men identifying themselves as police officers detained them and took them back to the Interior Ministry for questioning.

Threats From The Police

Nasibov's arrest stems from an incident on November 4 when he and Nasibova were reporting from a market in Naxcivan that police were attempting to close down. When shoppers and merchants staged a protest, police responded with force.

Nasibov and Nasibova then tried to interview protesters, but police threatened them and tried to confiscate their cameras and recording equipment.

Nasibov later sent a letter to President Aliyev's website protesting what he called police harassment. This prompted local police chief Sabuhi Novruzov to file criminal slander charges against Nasibov.

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 on December 6, but was told it was simply to formalize the dismissal of the charges. When he showed up in court without a lawyer, however, he was summarily sentenced to 90 days in prison.

Azerbaijani lawmakers today debated the Nasibov case in parliament.

Isa Habibbayli, a deputy representing Naxcivan, denied that journalists in the region were being targeted.

"There is no repression in Naxcivan against journalists. There is a struggle against those who use their position as journalists to break the law," Habibbayli said on the floor of parliament. "The correspondent from RFE/RL was arrested not because he was a journalist, but because he interfered with plans to demolish this market and beautify the city, and for interfering with police officers who were trying to establish order."

But opposition lawmaker Arzu Samedbayli criticized what he called "arbitrary" rule in Naxcivan, saying Nasibov's arrest fits into a larger pattern of repression.

"We hear a lot about arbitrariness on the part of the authorities, but this is nothing compared to what is happening in Naxcivan," Samedbayli said. "Tea houses are being destroyed in the region's villages, despite protests from the people. Other strange things are happening in Naxcivan. The authorities are destroying the ovens people use to bake bread in their homes because they say this harms the environment. They are forcing people to buy bread from shops owned by the state monopoly."

In the past year, Azerbaijan has witnessed a wave of what critics call politically motivated criminal cases against opposition journalists.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)

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