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Fatullayev: 'I'm Still Here -- Alive, Working, and Telling the Truth'

While international calls for his release (such as this one in France) may not have had an immediate effect, Eynulla Fatullayev says, "They couldn't have killed me with everyone watching."
Ask Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev about his four years in prison, and he'll answer not so much with words as with authors.

It was the Soviet emigre writer Sergei Dovlatov whose works were seized by guards in the early months of his sentence as "prison propaganda." Then, when prison authorities relented, it was the early 20th-century Russian poet Sergei Yesenin whom he read just before settling into an uneasy night's sleep.

And it was Ernest Hemingway, in his novel "The Old Man and The Sea," who gave Fatullayev the phrase he clung to throughout his four-year ordeal: "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

"Without books, I would have been broken," says Fatullayev, a cherubic 35-year-old who was finally released from prison in May after a massive international campaign by free-speech groups and personal advocates like Council of Europe human rights chief Thomas Hammarberg. "Unfortunately for them, my tormentors didn't understand the importance of books."

One of the greatest sources of solace, Fatullayev said during a recent visit to Prague, was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

"I said to myself: 'Look, people were surviving life in Stalinist prison camps. They didn't break. They survived. They even continued to fight,'" he says. "Solzhenitsyn of course wrote beautifully about all that in 'Gulag Archipelago,' 'First Circle,' and other works.

"So I said to myself, you've even got Hammarberg coming to see you. Ambassadors are able visit you. You can send out newspaper articles talking about what you're going through. But people 70 years ago didn't have any of those things! And they didn't break. They continued to fight. So are you really such a weakling that you can't survive this?"

'You Sleep With One Eye Open'

Fatullayev, whose thick black brows frame a face that is alternately playful and grim, takes frequent such jabs at himself. But he reserves his harshest scorn for the regime of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who he says has reduced his country to a "political desert."

Eynulla Fatullayev: "Without books, I would have been broken."
Once the co-editor of two influential opposition newspapers -- the Russian-language "Realny Azerbaijan" and the Azeri-language "Gundelik Azerbaycan" -- Fatullayev was jailed in 2007 after being convicted on charges relating to comments on the Khojaly massacre, a bloody slaughter of ethnic Azeris in the emotionally fraught Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Fatullayev defends his 2005 comments -- which held Azerbaijani fighters, not Armenians, responsible for the 1992 killings -- as consistent with those put forward by the Azerbaijani government itself, but says the regime has long sought to use the Khojaly events to persecute its opponents.

"Look at Ayaz Mutalibov, the first president of Azerbaijan," he says. "He's still under criminal investigation, and for what? Complicity in the Khojaly events. Officially he is charged with failing to protect his citizens and exposing them to danger. Fahmin Hajiyev, the head of Azerbaijan's interior troops of the country, spent 11 years in prison because of the Khojaly events.

"Every year, Azerbaijani television shows some strange little groups of people demonstrating and holding portraits of Azerbaijanis who are considered -- by the Azerbaijani government, not by me, the government was the one who demonstrated it -- to have participated in the Khojaly massacre. The Azerbaijani government itself used the Khojaly issue to undermine the reputation of the Azerbaijani opposition who had been in power at the time. And then to turn it around and put all the responsibility on me -- to arrest a journalist -- it's nonsense, it's a disgrace perpetrated by the Azeri government."

Most saw Khojaly as a pretext for Baku's greater discomfort over Fatullayev's critical reporting on the ruling regime, most notably Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, whom he accused of close ties to a former ministry official on trial for murder and kidnapping.

Fatullayev had already sustained a brutal beating on the street, and seen his father kidnapped and his colleague Elmar Huseynov murdered. Once he was imprisoned, officials continued the pressure, adding an additional two years to his sentence after allegedly finding heroin in his cell and subjecting Fatullayev to increasingly dismal conditions, including a 15-day wintertime internment in a "kartser," a Soviet-era concrete confinement cell.

"The only way to survive was to remain constantly in motion," he said. "If I stood still for even a moment, I would have died. I didn't sleep for 15 days, and I was constantly moving around. The windows were open to the outdoors and there was no bed. There was one very, very small heater, but then they turned that off as well. There were moments when I didn't know what to do, how to go on living."

Eventually, Fatullayev says, he learned how to draw strength from his suffering. "I trained myself. I obligated myself to continue my work," he says. "It's a very complicated philosophy, something you can only experience in prison. When you're in a constantly mobilized situation, you don't have the right to relax. You even sleep with one eye open, because someone might try to kill you. It was a terrifying kind of lesson in survival."

Life, And Love, After Prison

Throughout his ordeal, Fatullayev managed to smuggle out articles and letters detailing his experience in jail, even as his lawyers were themselves pressured and frequently forced out of work. (He currently writes a blog about his memories of prison for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.)

He also briefly found solace in a prison-time friendship with a fellow jailed journalist, blogger Emin Milli, who was serving a 17-month term for hooliganism. The two men were held in separate cell blocks, but could communicate by shouting across a courtyard and by writing letters back and forth.

Milli, who was released in late 2010, has since faced an uncertain future in Azerbaijan. Unable to find work and divorced by his wife, whose family was being systematically forced out of their own jobs because of their association with the journalist, Milli has since traveled to England for training.

Eynulla Fatullayev and his wife, Nigar, spoke to RFE/RL at its Prague headquarters.
Fatullayev -- who himself is a newlywed, married in late September -- says he's devastated by what's happened to his friend. But he says he's determined to stay in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that his new wife has also been warned by her family, many of whom work for the state administration, to steer clear of life with an opposition journalist.

Nigar Fatullayeva, a gynecological surgeon, says she has no doubts about the match, adding, "a doctor can always earn money, no matter what happens." A childhood friend of Eynulla's, Nigar had virtually no communication with the journalist during his time in jail, and acknowledges that Eynulla's troubles may continue. But she exudes a newlywed's confidence that a person is judged by the strength of his character and that all, ultimately, will be well.

"Maybe he'll be in prison again. Maybe more of these unbelievable things will happen to him," she says. "We had a very important discussion before our marriage, and I told him, 'I'm ready to be with you until the end.' I know what I'm getting into. And I will always support him, because every man should know that he's got someone behind him, and that he can count on that.

"We have a very strong family -- even if it's officially only three days old at this point. But I think it will last for 30 or 40 more years. As much as fate allows."

"A very optimistic prognosis," Fatullayev adds dryly, and the couple collapses into laughter.

Armed To Fight?

Fatullayev is perhaps the Azerbaijani journalist who is best known to the international community. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) both repeatedly challenged his sentence, and Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Fatullayev's behalf a full year before he was finally released by a presidential pardon. And next month, he and Nigar will travel to New York to receive the CPJ press-freedom award he was given, but unable to accept, in 2009.

The attention, he says, may not have immediately secured his freedom, but he does feel it may have saved his life in prison. "They couldn't have killed me with everyone watching," he says. But whether it will continue to shield him from further persecution remains to be seen.

For now, he is content to continue blogging and living slightly under the radar. But he is eager to return to newspaper publishing, and he believes thousands of Azerbaijanis are eager for it as well. "My friends want me to leave Azerbaijan, to go teach journalism someplace safe," he says. "But I don't want to give my captors the satisfaction. I want them to know: I'm still here -- alive, working, and telling the truth."

For now, however, he acknowledges that prospects for Azerbaijan look bleak. "I was arrested and jailed in one country," he says. "And freed in a completely different one."

His country, he says, is "witnessing a transformation from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. And the first signs of a totalitarian system are limits on the right to expression and freedom of speech. Our imitation democracy is over, any early signs of liberalism were nipped in the bud. So it's very difficult to live in this country, let alone to resume journalistic work."