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HRW urges Azerbaijan to end arrests, attacks on journalists

The Republic of Azerbaijan must free its imprisoned journalists and repeal its criminal defamation laws [press release], Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] said in a report [text] released Tuesday. In its 94-page report, entitled "Beaten, Blacklisted, and Behind Bars: The Vanishing Space for Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan," HRW cited numerous instances of violence against journalists and said that many of these acts are perpetrated by police seeking to prevent journalists from investigating issues of public interest. The report highlights the continuing imprisonment of Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, as well as bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade. The European Court of Human Rights [official website] ordered Azerbaijan to effectuate Fatullayev's immediate release [decision; JURIST report] in April, but he remains detained on separate drug charges [CPJ report] that many human rights groups believe are spurious. Milli and Hajizade were arrested after they were attacked at a cafe [RFE/RL report, in Azeri]. They were convicted on hooliganism charges, even though they allege they are in fact the victims in the premeditated attack intended to incriminate them only weeks after they disseminated a satircal video [link] on YouTube about overpriced donkeys in Azerbaijan's state budget [NYT report]. HRW expressed concern that the continuing deterioration in the area of freedom of expression could impact the upcoming elections in Azerbaijan:

The vanishing space for freedom of expression is particularly alarming given the upcoming November 7, 2010 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, as vibrant public discourse is crucial for a free and fair vote. Azerbaijan has a history of curtailing free speech in the run up to elections, which have overall failed to meet international standards.
In addition to concern over repression against journalists, HRW's report also notes that, since January 2009, foreign radio stations including Voice of America (VOA), BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) [media websites] have been barred from broadcasting on FM radio [RFE/RL report].

According to HRW, over the last several years, at least nine journalists have fled Azerbaijan due to pressure and concerns about their safety. President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev is recognized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) [advocacy website] as a Predator of Press Freedom [RSF report]. In 2007, Azerbaijan convicted two journalists of defaming Islam [JURIST report]. Well-known Azerbaijani journalist Elmar Huseynov was murdered in 2005, and his murder remains unsolved [CPJ report]. Azerbaijan also has a record of conducting elections that do not comport with international standards, and the European Rights Court recently issued decisions indicating that Azerbaijan violated the rights of parliamentary candidates Namat Aliyev [decision; JURIST report] and Flora Kerimova [decision] during the 2005 elections.

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