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Azerbaijan Report: January 5, 2004

5 January 2004
Ilham Aliyev Signs First Pardoning Decree
On 30 December Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed his first decree on pardoning or reducing the sentence of a total of 165 prisoners. Under the decree,160 people were released from serving their remaining sentences, while the prison term of four convicts was reduced and one prisoner's life-term was replaced with 20 years imprisonment. Among the pardoned are former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, former head of the Interpol Bureau in Azerbaijan Ilgar Safikhanov, and former members of the now defunct OMON (special purpose police group) who mutinied against the government in March 1995. International organizations considered all these people political prisoners.

Hamidov was arrested in 1995 on charges of abuse of power and misappropriation of state funds and first sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. But following a 13-month long retrial under pressure from the Council of Europe he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. In an interview with the media, Hamidov said that he will continue his political activities and pursue a more radical policy. He expressed gratitude to President Ilham Aliev. "I am ready to meet him and shake his hand," Hamidov said.

Local human rights activists have welcomed the pardon decree and expressed the hope that other political prisoners will be freed as well. Rena Sadaddinova, deputy chairwoman of the Foundation for Democratic Development and Human Rights, told RFE/RL that 65 pardoned persons, as well as four others whose prison terms were reduced, were on a list of political prisoners presented by Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations to the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, six persons whose names are on the list are still in prison. Sadaddinova noted that this was the new president's first pardon decree. She expressed the hope that the remaining political prisoners and those persons arrested in the wake of 15-16 October riots will be released under future such decrees.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Vurgun Eyyub, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party, hailed the recent pardon decree, but added that he would like the people charged with 15-16 October disorders to be released as well.

Also in an interview with RFE/RL, Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, pointed out that this decree demonstrates the authorities' impartiality to opposition representatives.

Leila Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, noted that as expected, not all 245 political prisoners named in the list compiled by the Council of Europe have been released. She said that 180 more political prisoners are still in custody. To date the government has issued 33 pardon decrees, including the current one, and released 3,167 convicts.

(Asef Guliev and Kebiran Dilaverli)

New Azeri Soccer Chief Elected
Ramiz Mirzaev, president of the local Neftchi football team and director of the Azerneftyag oil refinery, has been elected the new president of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA). At the sixth AFFA Congress he replaced Fuad Musaev, who had presided over AFFA since it was founded in 1992.

Delegates to the conference called AFFA's activities unsatisfactory and accused the association's governing bodies of lacking professionalism. Initially six candidates competed in the elections, but two of them, including ex-president Musaev, later withdraw their nominations. At his first press conference, Mirzaev pledged to raise Azeri soccer to world standards over the next five years.

Controversy has plagued Azeri soccer for several years. In 2002 nine premier division clubs even boycotted the national championship, setting four conditions contrary to AFFA regulations, including a demand for Musaev's resignation. The clubs then planned to organize an alternative championship and arrange alternate games, while Musaev and his supporters claimed that the government was pushing for his removal. The national championship has started again after a year-long interval.

(Asef Guliev and Rovshen Ganbarov)

350 Conflicts in Field of Freedom of Speech and Press Registered in 2003
Some 350 conflicts in the area of freedom of press and speech have been registered during 2003 in Azerbaijan, according to monitoring conducted by RUH, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. The monitoring showed that 55 media outlets, including 38 newspapers, five television stations, four magazines, four news agencies, three journalist organizations and one radio station were involved in conflicts in 2003. The committee registered 39 cases of psychological pressure against journalists in 2003. During this period 133 media representatives were subjected to physical pressure, mainly during unsanctioned protests staged by various organizations. A total of 60 journalists have been detained by police while discharging their duties, 28 of them while collecting information during unauthorized actions.

Moreover, there were several cases of destruction and confiscation of property owned by media workers, the committee reported. Sixty cases of illegal prohibition of sales of newspapers were registered in 2003. The opposition newspapers "Yeni Musavat," "Azadlig," "Hurriyyet," "Baki-Heber," "Yeni Zaman" and "Novoye vremya" were not published between November 15--20 because of the refusal of most printing houses to publish them and a 100 percent increase in the price of newsprint.

According to the committee, 40 suits were filed against 18 media outlets in 2003. Twenty-seven trials are over and courts fined the papers 1.6 billion manats (more than $325,000) which is nonetheless considerably less than the 7.4 billion manats (more than $1.5 million) demanded by the plaintiffs.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Section 907 Suspended for Another One Year
U.S. President George W. Bush has again waived for a further year Section 907 of the Freedom Support Pact passed by the U.S. Congress in 1992. This law bans direct American aid to Azerbaijan as long as that country continues to blockade Armenia.

According to political scientist Kazim Azimov, the further prolongation of the suspension of Section 907 gives grounds to hope that this section will be repealed in 2005, considering the gradual rapprochement between the two countries. Azimov acknowledged that the abolition of this law depends on the U.S. Congress as well as the American president. But a certain time is needed for Congress to perceive its earlier injustice to Azerbaijan, he concluded.

(Shahnaz Beilergizi)