The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety strongly condemns the politically motivated arrest of Khural newspaper editor-in-chief Avaz Zeynalli by order of the Azerbaijani authorities, and calls for his immediate release.

On October 28th, Zeynalli was detained by officers from the Anti-Corruption Department and sentenced to three months of pre-trial detention by the Nasimi District Court. The arrest is based on a complaint filed with the Anti-Corruption Department by MP Gular Ahmadova, from the ruling YAP party. In the complaint, Ahmadova claims that approximately two months ago Avaz Zeynalli demanded 12,000 AZN from her, for his silence; she alleges that he threatened to publish compromising information about her. If convicted, Zeynalli could face up to 12 years of imprisonment.

IRFS’s initial investigation shows that the authorities have no legitimate evidence on which to base such a serious accusation. IRFS also points out that the Azerbaijani government, notorious for its intolerance of media freedoms, had specific motivations to silence Zeynalli.

Notably, in the past year there have been over 20 defamation trials concerning the Khural newspaper and huge fines have been levied against the newspaper as a result of these court cases. The newspaper’s property was inventoried due to its failure to pay a 10,000 AZN court fine to Presidential Administration head Ramiz Mehdiyev and 5,000 AZN to Vugar Safarli, the executive director of the State Fund for Support to Mass Media Development.

Khural has been publishing weekly since 2002, but began publishing daily on September 20th of this year. On October 17th, Khural newspaper published an article in which Avaz Zeynalli analyzed David Paradine Frost’s Al Jazeera TV interview with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev  and called upon Aliyev to resign. It was two days after the publication of this article that Khural was targeted by the ruling establishment: court executors confiscated the paper’s computer equipment to pay the fines to Ramiz Mehdiyev and Vugar Safarli, thus paralyzing Khural’s work. In response, Zeynalli published another severely critical article targeting the President, and after October 20th a number of printing houses refused to print Khural, preventing the newspaper from pubishing its print version. Despite these pressures, the newspaper continued to publish online and continued to criticize the ruling establishment. A week later, Zeynalli was in prison.

The political nature of Zeynalli’s arrest is demonstrated by the fact that on October 20th, his brother Rauf Zeynalovun was dismissed from his job with the State Traffic Police Department without any legitimate justification.

IRFS recalls that the former editor-in-chief of Realniy Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan newspapers, Eynulla Fatullayev, was arrested and put in prison under similar charges. Pressure against Fatullayev also mounted in the same way with the newspaper’s property being confiscated by law-enforcement agencies before the arrest, under fabricated charges.

IRFS believes that Zeynalli’s arrest demonstrates once again that the Azerbaijani government is not implementing its domestic and international obligations to protect and support human rights, particularly freedom of expression.

It is notable that in his interview with Al Jazeera, President Ilham Aliyev described freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan as “good”, and cited internet freedom as an example.

It should also be noted that in a letter sent to European Broadcasting Union by Prime Minister Artur Rasizadeh, sent in reference to the forthcoming Eurovision Song Sontest to be hosted in Baku (May 2012), the Azerbaijan ruling establishment guaranteed the protection of human rights in Azerbaijan. The number of political prisoners, followed by the arrest of Avaz Zeynalli, indicate the government’s promises were not genuine

IRFS calls upon the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release Avaz Zeynalli, to show tolerance for press freedom, and to respect human rights.

IRFS calls upon the international community to keep its attention on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the run up to the  Eurovision 2012 Song Contest, and to strongly condemn any steps aimed to restrict human rights.


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