1 June 2011

Eynulla Fatullayev free at last

Journalist Eynulla Fatullayev has been freed from prison.
Journalist Eynulla Fatullayev has been freed from prison.
Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev's imprisonment became emblematic of the battle for free expression in the country. After four years in prison on politically motivated charges, Fatullayev was released on a presidential pardon on 26 March. He endured years of threats, attacks and prosecution in retaliation for his writing, even before his imprisonment in 2007. After years of intensely campaigning for his release, the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) and other IFEX members are thrilled with the news that he is now free. His release was part of a general amnesty for political prisoners, marking 28 May, Republic Day.

Speaking to IRFS, Fatullayev thanked the international community for its support, "I am hugely grateful for the tireless support I received while I was in prison. I would like to thank in particular the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for leading the international campaign. Thanks also to my Azerbaijani comrades." He told Reporters Without Borders (RSF), "The international pressure had a very big impact."

Many organisations fought hard for his release, "especially those on the ground in Azerbaijan," said the International Press Institute (IPI). In a February 2011 visit to Baku, IPI pressed for his release in talks with the Azerbaijani presidential administration. Fatullayev's pardon came after a visit to Azerbaijan in early May by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović, who met with Fatullayev in prison. (Nevertheless, the journalist's conviction has not been overturned.)

Recipient of the CPJ 2009 press freedom award, Fatullayev spoke to CPJ about his prison experience from his Baku home, the day after his release. He was sent to several jails and described being placed in solitary confinement multiple times, being moved to a military prison where he was denied any contact with the outside world, being accosted by rats, and the deterioration of his health. He said his lawyers told him of the international campaign working for his release: "You cannot realise what it feels like to have that kind of support when you are in isolation. You cannot realise the level at which it matters."

Fatullayev says he will gladly return to working as a journalist if the authorities can ensure that he will be able to publish independently. "Journalism is my calling," he told CPJ.

He was serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence since April 2007 for unsubstantiated charges of criminal defamation, threatening terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred and tax evasion. He was imprisoned for writing an article that accused high-ranking officials of being the masterminds behind the 2005 murder of Azeri journalist Elmar Huseynov, along with other searing critiques of government policies.

But even after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled for his immediate release and financial compensation from the Azerbaijani government in April 2010, he continued to be held in detention. Also in 2010, authorities kept him detained by filing charges of drug possession, adding another two-and-a-half years to his sentence. The drug charges were widely seen as fabricated to keep him behind bars to counter any decision by the ECHR.

Fatullayev was the founder and editor of two popular newspapers in the country, "Gundelik Azerbaijan" (Azerbaijan Daily) and "Realny Azerbaijan" (Real Azerbaijan). Civil and criminal charges were brought against Fatullayev for a 2005 article about the 1992 Khojali massacre, which took place during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, reports Human Rights Watch. In 2006, Fatullayev was forced to suspend publication of both newspapers briefly after his father was kidnapped and held hostage; kidnappers threatened to kill him. Fatullayev's two newspapers were shut down by authorities in May 2007. In 2004 he was badly beaten for writing an article critical of the government.

Despite the recent amnesty, "Azerbaijan remains a dangerous place to express opinions critical of the government, and a climate of intimidation is pervasive," writes Rebecca Vincent for Index on Censorship. IRFS, RSF and Human Rights Watch are calling on Azeri authorities to release two detained social media activists, Jabbar Savalanli and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. Both activists had used Facebook to criticise authorities and call for protests, and were recently convicted for drug possession and draft evasion in politically motivated prosecutions.

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