Azerbaijan: Journalist and writer jailed as crackdown on freedom of expression continues

The Azerbaijani authorities must halt their post-election crackdown on freedom of expression, Amnesty International urged today as a journalist and a writer who criticised the government were both jailed on trumped-up charges. 
Rashad Ramazanov, a writer and blogger who spoke out against the authorities in his posts on Facebook and YouTube, was sentenced yesterday to nine years in prison on dubious drug charges.

Also yesterday, pro-opposition newspaper editor Sardar Alibeyli was handed a four-year prison sentence on charges of "hooliganism".

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director, said:

“Azerbaijan's ruthless and relentless attack on any dissenting voices in the media continues apace with these shameful convictions and jail sentences, which appear to be based on offences fabricated by the prosecution.
“Ilham Aliyev’s recent re-election appears to have done nothing to reduce the Azerbaijani authorities’ enthusiasm for persecution and censorship. These new cases and the squeeze on the two leading opposition newspapers sadly confirms the Aliyev regime’s determination not just to beat – but to silence – all political opposition.
“Rashad Ramazanov and Sardar Alibeyli are prisoners of conscience, jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and they must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Yesterday's sentences come amid a continuing and widespread crackdown on government critics in Azerbaijan, including on media workers, NGOs and human rights activists. Amnesty believes that there are now at least 18 prisoners of conscience in the country, many of them jailed for speaking out against the authorities in the media.

Ramazanov was arrested on 9 May and taken to the Organised Crime Unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where officials claimed to have found 9.05 grammes of heroin in his trouser pocket. He denied the charges and insisted that the drugs had been planted on him.

Ramazanov’s family and lawyer were not notified of his whereabouts for four days and, when his lawyer was finally allowed to meet him on 17 May, he saw his client had serious and extensive bruises on his head. Ramazanov told his lawyer he had been severely beaten several times in custody. Police have denied the claims, but there has been no official investigation.

His wife, Konul Ismayilova, told Amnesty that Ramazanov had been beaten as a punishment for his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev and his family, and to force him to confess. She added: “We have nothing to apologise for, and though we are suffering, we are not guilty of anything.”

By law, Ramazanov should have been transferred to an Investigative Detention Centre within 24 hours of the court decision ordering him to serve three months of pre-trial detention, but he was inexplicably kept at the Ministry of Internal Affairs for 11 days. Requests for him to undergo medical examination were ignored by investigators, while the only witnesses in his trial were the officials who detained him.

Meanwhile, Sardar Alibeyli, the editor of newspaper Nota Bene and its accompanying news site PS Nota, was detained on 31 July after a man claimed that Alibeyli had beaten him and struck his face with a stone. The man accusing Alibeyli subsequently changed his account, but this was ignored by the court.

None of the defence witnesses in the case were permitted to give evidence during his trial, while Alibeyli, who denies the charges, said he did not recognise the man who accused him.

Alibeyli’s arrest came after his newspaper had been highly critical of the government and provided a platform for other government critics, including political exiles.

In the months before and after the 9 October presidential election, there has been an increasingly repressive media environment and a crackdown on civil society and political activists in Azerbaijan.

The prosecution of journalists has been accompanied by increasing pressure against opposition and independent newspapers.

Mounting compensation claims, freezing of bank accounts and a ban on the sale of critical newspapers in kiosks in the underground system has resulted in two of the most popular opposition newspapers, Azadliq and Yeni Musavat, stopping publication of their daily issues in the past week.

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