“All three writers are behind bars, largely for doing work they believed in and for trying to inform the public,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope that this award will help raise awareness of their imprisonment and the need for their unconditional and immediate release.”
The Hellman/Hammett grants, administered by Human Rights Watch, are given annually to writers who face political persecution for their work. The grant program began in 1989 when the American playwright Lillian Hellman willed her estate to be used to help writers who were victims of political persecution and were in financial need as a result. A committee of authors, editors and journalists select the candidates for the award. This year, there are 34 award recipients from 19 countries, including the three from Azerbaijan.
For the past year and a half, the government of Azerbaijan has cracked down on independent and opposition media. It has used libel, defamation and other criminal charges to intimidate more than a dozen independent and opposition journalists, some of whom have also been physically attacked by unknown assailants.
“This recognition comes amidst the deteriorating media situation in the country,” said Cartner. “As Azerbaijan moves closer to its fall 2008 presidential elections, ensuring media freedoms and plurality of opinions expressed through diverse media sources, is key to a free and fair vote.”
Eynulla Fatullayev is an outspoken critic of the Azerbaijani government through articles he wrote for various independent newspapers, including the two largest papers, Realni Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, both of which he founded and headed as editor-in-chief. He has also written for the weekly magazine Monitor, whose editor was murdered in March 2005. All three papers have been effectively shut down.
In September 2006, a court handed Fatullayev a two-year suspended sentence in three criminal defamation cases brought against him by the minister of the interior. He was also ordered to pay damages to the latter. He was again convicted in April 2007 for criminal libel and insult, this time for an article that blamed Azerbaijanis for the 1992 massacre of Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh. Fatullayev denied having written the piece, which was posted to an internet forum, but was nonetheless sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Fatullayev was convicted for the third time in October 2007, this time on charges of terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred, and tax evasion, and sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. The terrorism charges stem from an article he wrote criticizing the Azerbaijani government’s foreign policy.
Fatullayev has endured harassment, physical attacks, death threats and other abuses, none of which have been adequately investigated by the police.
Sakit Zahidov, who uses the pen name Mirza Sakit, is a journalist, poet, and satirist who started writing for the opposition daily, Azadlig, in 2003. Zahidov’s poems, which often refer to government corruption, have been published in several other newspapers, including Bizim Yol and Baki Bulvari. Zahidov has also published two collections of his poems, one in April 2005 and another in June 2006. On June 23, 2006, a week after the publication of his second collection, Zahidov was detained on spurious drug charges (see http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/02/09/azerba15374_txt.htm) sentenced to three years of imprisonment. His arrest took place soon after a senior ruling party official publicly criticized Zahidov for his writing.
Ganimed Zahidov, the editor-in-chief of Azadlig, is also the brother of Sakit Zahidov. His conviction is the most recent of the three. He was arrested in November 2007 and sentenced to four years in March 2008 on hooliganism charges, which local and international observers consider spurious. Zahidov often criticized high-ranking government officials in Azadlig and as a result was subject to harassment, threats, and physical attacks. Government officials have brought numerous lawsuits against him personally and his paper, resulting in hundreds of thousands of US dollars in fines. The newspaper staff was evicted from its premises in November 2006.