Renewed Crackdown on Journalists in Azerbaijan

Civil Rights Defenders condemns the renewed crackdown on journalists in Azerbaijan, including Mehman Huseynov, Mustafa Hajibeyli, Anar Mammadov, and Khadija Ismayilova. We call on the international community to hold Azerbaijan to account and for it to end its practice of silencing, intimidating, and imprisoning brave critical journalists who are willing to speak truth to power.

On December 26, the Azerbaijani authorities charged imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov with attacking prison staff. Facing up to seven additional years in prison, he began a hunger strike that is now entering its ninth day. On November 30, prosecutors charged editor Mustafa Hajibeyli and Anar Mammadov with calling for the violent overthrow of the state, and on December 21 an administrative court ordered the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova pay a disputed tax debt allegedly owed by her former employer of more than €23.000.

Mehman Huseynov was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on fabricated charges in March 2017, and the new allegations are a pretext to prevent the prolific and popular blogger from being released in two months’ time. He was placed in an isolation cell shortly after the new charges were announced, and maintained a dry hunger strike for nearly a week before yielding to pressure from family members to accept water. Huseynov remains on a hunger strike to protest his unjust detention.

The original case was farcical, as he was convicted of slandering a police chief whose officers detained Huseynov without cause, tortured him, and ordered him to stop his activities. During the trial, the presiding judge had difficulty formally identifying Huseynov because the government had long since seized his passport to prevent him from travelling abroad, and his domestic ID to make signing a formal work contract impossible.

The charges against Hajibeyli and Mammadov stem from their coverage of the attempted murder of the mayor of Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganja in July 2018. The two editors drew the ire of authorities when they echoed widespread reports on social media that the would-be assassin was angered by the mayor’s misrule, and was not, as pro-government media alleged, part of a foreign-backed plot to turn Azerbaijani into an Islamic state. The murder attempt sparked further protests and arrests, and the charges brought against the two journalists appear to be designed to discourage critical coverage of future unrest.

Hajibeyli’s trial is due to start on January 11th. Mammadov has been interrogated for dozens of hours, and both websites were placed on Azerbaijan’s increasingly lengthy blacklist in July 2018.

Khadija Ismayilova, herself a former political prisoner who is regularly harassed by the Azerbaijani state, was ordered by a Baku court to pay a tax debt of more than €23,000 of her former employer, the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The charges are absurd on their face – Ismayilova was never in charge of the service’s finance, and as a non-profit entity, Radio Free Europe enjoyed tax-exempt status in Azerbaijan.

Since Ismayilova’s conditional release in May 2016, she has been subjected to numerous frivolous legal actions, frequently had bank accounts closed without cause, and been denied permission to exit the country, even in the case of the death of her own mother. Nevertheless, she has continued her work, and was awarded a Right Livelihood Award in 2017.

Civil Rights Defenders condemns these politically-driven prosecutions and calls on the government of Azerbaijan to drop the charges against all four journalists, immediately release Huseynov, and allow independent media to operate within the country in line with its international commitments to respect for human rights and freedom of expression. We also call upon foreign governments, especially members of the Council of Europe, and international organisations to hold Azerbaijan to account and end its persecution of civil society.

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