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Azerbaijan Report: February 7, 2003

7 February 2003
OSCE Criticizes Government Pressure on the Media
On 4 February Freimut Duve, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, issued a statement on the media situation in Azerbaijan. Government officials continue their legal prosecution of media outlets, and such a situation could lead to the closure of newspapers, the statement said.

"What disturbs me is that the Azerbaijani government, which has become a member of the PACE family and stated its adherence to the democratic values, does not attempt to change the situation with the media and refuses to take measures in this direction. In democratic societies writing about government officials' activities is considered to be journalists' professional duty. In my opinion, officials should not have special immunity against such articles. On the contrary, in comparison with ordinary citizens they must show more tolerance of criticism," Duve said in the statement. He noted that although on 6 December 2002 he appealed to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry for information about the media situation in Azerbaijan, it has not yet responded to his request.

While the OSCE representative waits for a response from the foreign ministry, new legal proceedings are being brought against the independent and opposition media in Azerbaijan.

On 6 February the Yasamal district court considered a further suit against the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat." The State Caspian Sea Shipping Company (CASPAR) is suing the paper for stories it wrote about the sinking of the "Mercury 2" vessel in October 2002, in which more than 40 people died.

But on 4 February the Sabail district court rejected the suit of Barat Nuriev, former deputy chairman of the State Property Committee, who called for, among other things the closure of the paper for three years as well as criminal proceedings to be brought against its editors. The court required the paper to print retractions of information it published alleging that several American companies which were involved in dealings with Czech businessman Victor Kozeny had brought a legal action against the Alievs and other officials, including Nuriev. The same court found the paper guilty of libel in the case filed by a local company Azersun, requiring the paper to pay $100,000 in damages.

Other newspapers, such as "Nebz," "Cumhuriyyet," "Tezadlar," and "Novoye Vremya," have also been the targets of law suits.

The Editors' Union, which considers these court cases as pressure on the media, held a one-day hunger strike, saying that it will resort to other methods of struggle.

On 4 February, the union held a picket in front of the Sabail district Court. On 5 February, journalists intended to organize a rally in the center of Baku, marching past the Presidential Administration building. But the Baku Mayor's Office again offered only to allow them to gather on Galaba Square, on the outskirts of the city. The union rejected that offer.

Meanwhile, at a 5 February meeting the Editors' Union prepared a draft agreement on mutual defense among newspapers, news agencies and journalists' organizations. The document, prepared with the title: "An Attack against one is an attack against all," is expected to be signed in the near future.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Hamidov Trial Expected to Continue at New Location
Former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, who is serving a prison term in a hard labor prison in Gobustan, is expected to be transferred to a corrective labor camp. Hamidov's lawyer Yaver Huseinli told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that he and the prison leadership have been officially informed of the transfer.

Hamidov was arrested in 1995 and charged with abuse of power and misappropriation of government assets. His case has attracted the attention of human rights organizations, and the Council of Europe has appealed to the government for a retrial.

Huseinli said that according to unofficial sources, the retrial of Hamidov will be continued at the corrective labor institution. But Huseinli noted that under existing legislation, a trial cannot be held in a correctional or detention institution. "Iskander Hamidov is an accused person, and such an attitude toward him is a serious violation of law," Huseinli argued.

Huseinli also pointed out that if the court does not pass a just sentence, they will appeal to the European Court. He said that one representative of the OSCE subcommittee created to reinvestigate the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, is already in Baku, and another is to arrive in the next few days. They are expected to attend the retrial. The Azerbaijani law-enforcement bodies and the government want to prove the international organizations that they are fulfilling their obligations. But everything is, in fact, vice versa and citizens as well as the state will suffer from all this lawlessness, Huseinli said.

(Zhale Mutallimova)

Conservative Faction of People's Front Holds Party Congress
On 1-2 February the "conservative faction" of the People's Front Party (AXCP) headed by Mirmahmud Miralioglu held its party congress. Miralioglu said on 4 February that at the congress the party's activists determined the main direction of their activities for the near future and developed their position toward the upcoming presidential elections. The party confirmed once again its intention to field its own candidate for the elections. However, it is also ready to discuss a common candidate issue with other opposition parties.

Miralioglu noted that his faction will send documents on the results of the congress to the Ministry of Justice for the party's registration. "We appealed to the Ministry of Justice in November 2000. But it has not yet responded. As a result of the latest meeting we will appeal to the ministry again," he said.

At present the ministry recognizes the AXCP "reformist faction" headed by Ali Kerimli, as the real AXCP. However, last month it cancelled registration of the Kerimli's faction and registered another one headed by Gudret Hasenguliev as the official AXCP. A presidential decree issued nine days later reversed the ministry's decision.

(Natig Zeinalli)

According to the independent newspaper "525," Terri Davis, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's rapporteur on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, will visit the region on 26-28 March. It is not yet clear whether he will enter Karabakh from Armenia or from Azerbaijan.

Under the headline "Medicine 'wound' of our health," the independent newspaper "Uch Nokta" talks about low-grade and dangerous medicines in the drug market.

Under the headline "Preparation for falsification," the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" points out that now is when Aliyev is most concerned about the outcome of the fall presidential elections.

The government newspaper "Azerbaycan" in the article "Mass protest actions will again bring defeat to the opposition" notes that elections can be won only through civilized methods of struggle.

Ismail Valiev, director of the Azerbaijani National Encyclopedia, said in an interview with the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo" that national encyclopedia currently faces a lack of funds.

Tomas Eizanhald, director-general of the Azerbaijan Microfinance Bank, answered questions from the newspaper "Uch Nokta" on the development of the banking system in Azerbaijan. He said that there are many people in Baku who want to get loans. There is also a great need for credits in the countryside. Therefore, the bank intends to widen its activities and open more branches. In January the Microfinance Bank granted 130 loans totaling $150,000, Eizanhald said, adding that the bank plans to grant about 1,000 loans this year. Touching on the level of economic development in the country, Eizanhald said that every country has own distinguishing features. As to the legal base of the economy, great development is now observed in Azerbaijan. But there is still much work to do, he concluded.

Under the headline "Heroes of the election year," the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" notes that next ideological card played by the government in the election year is the publicity campaign surrrounding the expected visit of Terri Davis, the PACE rapporteur on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, to Karabakh. During the election campaign President Aliyev must give an account to the Azerbaijani people of what he has done to solve the conflict. But since there is no positive advance in this sphere, the president has nothing to say to the people. That is why the government's ideologists attempt to fill this vacuum with "insignificant propaganda shows." By focussing on the question "where will the rapporteur come to Khankendi [Stepanakert] from?" the government wants to show that it is fighting for Karabakh in the international arena. The issue of Davis's point of departure for his visit to Karabakh is a sideshow; until recently, this issue has never been a point of discussion. Moreover, the publicity surrounding Davis's unimportant visit to Karabakh suggests that the government will attempt to benefit from the "Karabakh card" on the eve of the presidential voting. "Shows" on Karabakh must help the government to disguise the failure of its Karabakh policy, on the one hand, and win additional points as far as possible, on the other.

Rasim Bairamov in an article entitled 'European official does not intend to pardon Baku" in the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet" writes that on 10 February a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] will visit Baku to make clear how Azerbaijan fulfills its obligations before the council. According to some sources, the PACE members are now most interested in freedom of the media and the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. These issues continue to be a source of tension between the Council of Europe and the government. Although the government denies the existence of political prisoners in the country, the Council of Europe states the opposite. Bairamov notes that most European structures attribute the government's current policy toward the media to the upcoming presidential elections. Since the election is approaching, the government has intensified pressure on the media and the opposition. Of course, democratic European society does not intend to close its eyes to that fact. Since the Azerbaijani government puts obstacles in the media's way and does not fulfill its commitments, it is expected to face serious pressures from the Council of Europe, OSCE and other European organizations.

Under the headline "A Flow of Iraqi refugees to Azerbaijan is not expected," the independent Russian-language newspaper "Ekho" cites the Turan news agency as saying that the Baku office of the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has published a report on the situation of refugees in Azerbaijan. According to that report, 7,000 Chechen and 2,000 Afghan refugees have been registered to date, of whom 33 have since voluntarily returned to their homeland. The number of refugees from other countries is insignificant. For example, there are only 150 refugees from Iran and Iraq. As to the effect of the possible war against Iraq on the situation in Azerbaijan, the UNHCR's Baku office notes that Azerbaijan, first of all, does not share a common border with Iraq; secondly, in case of war most Iraqi refugees are expected to appeal to neighboring Turkey and Kuwait.

Nazim Mustafa in an article "The Armenian diaspora is discontent with the U.S. Administration" in the government newspaper "Khalg" writes that one of factors that disturbs Armenia and the Armenian diaspora is the quick development of military cooperation between the United States and Azerbaijan and Georgia. If last year the U.S. provided means for the guarding of Azerbaijan's sea borders, this year it will also allocate means for the protection of its land borders. Mustafa points out that providing security for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) main oil pipeline is a significant issue for the United States. Until Armenian terrorism and Armenian separatism in Nagorno-Karabakh is rooted out, there will be no stability in the region. Considering this, the reduction of the U.S. assistance to aggressive Armenia is natural. But pro-Armenian forces inside the U.S. Congress encourage Armenia and support separatism in Karabakh. Even the fact that Congress has allocated $20 million to Nagorno-Karabakh is the result of the activities of pro-Armenian forces in the Congress.

Elbrus Jeferli in the article "Poaching continues" in the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" writes that although measures on protection of fish resources have been strengthened, poaching continues. Illegal fishing both in the Caspian Sea and the Kur river is carried out under the control of certain groups. Of course, corresponding organs have repeatedly imposed fines during their struggle against poaching. In 2002, the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources drew up 184 statements and 142 indictments for violations of fishing rules. Jeferli notes that only last year the total amount of illegal fish caught amounted to 4,632 kilograms. These facts prove once again that despite the strengthening of the inspection system, the poaching network is still afoot. Some state institutions allegedly protect poachers.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)