The recent releases of two jailed bloggers in Azerbaijan raised hopes that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration might be adopting a more lenient stance on independent journalists. But now, another jailed journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, appears to have been doubly punished, suggesting that authorities remain intent on strictly controlling Azerbaijan’s media environment.
The latest controversy concerning Fatullayev’s case stems from a series of decisions issued November 11 by Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court. The high court threw out an earlier, eight-and-a-half-year sentence against Fatullayev for allegedly inciting ethnic hatred and threatening terrorism – a charge apparently linked to a statement published by the now-defunct Realny Azerbaijan newspaper that questioned Azerbaijan’s role in the 1992 Khojaly Massacre of ethnic Azeris in breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.
The court also lengthened an existing two-month prison sentence for tax fraud to two years and three months. But while the libel charge was dropped and the tax fraud sentence lengthened, it appears that the court arbitrarily added a two-year conviction in another libel case to Fatullayev’s record.
Fatullayev’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, claims that a written copy of the Supreme Court’s decision that he received on December 6 mentions a two-year prison sentence for Fatullayev for a 2006 conviction of libel against then-Interior Minister Ramil Usubov.
At the time, Fatullayev was sentenced to two years of “conditional freedom,” a sentence that required the journalist to check in regularly with police. The Court of Appeals later reduced the sentence to one year.
Supreme Court Chairman Ramiz Rzayev reportedly did not formally announce the “revised” two-year prison sentence for libel during the court’s November 11 session. “I was absolutely shocked,” commented Sadigov. “It is an absolute shame for the judiciary system, and I wonder how they are going to explain the move.” Court officials did not respond to phone calls seeking an explanation for the apparent retroactive sentence.
If the sentences for tax fraud and drug possession are upheld – and the unusual second sentence for libel allowed to stand – Fatullayev will face the prospect of six years and nine months in prison; a term nearly as long as the annulled libel sentence.
News of the Supreme Court’s machinations emerged as the Council of Europe on December 7 urged Azerbaijan to uphold a European Court of Human Rights ruling for Fatullayev’s release from prison. A statement -- issued by the Council of Europe’s (COE) Committee of Ministers, made up of the foreign ministers of the Council’s 47 member-states -- called on Azerbaijan “to examine rapidly the questions” about Fatullayev’s detention and “to explore all possible means of ending the applicant's detention including, if necessary by alternative, non-custodial measures.”
The Committee of Ministers, which carries responsibility for monitoring member-states’ adherence to COE obligations, welcomed the Supreme Court decision to annul Fatullayev’s conviction for allegedly inciting ethnic hatred and threatening terrorism. The ruling made it “it possible in principle for the applicant to be released,” the statement read.
The Committee of Ministers gave Baku a March 2011 deadline to provide information for “an in-depth examination” of Fatullayev’s case.
No mention of the Supreme Court’s apparent punitive measures was made.
While Azerbaijan’s courts have been faulted by international monitors for failing to deliver reasoned judgments, no ready explanation was available for why the Supreme Court would decide to reinstate a past prison sentence.
Fatullayev’s father, Emin Fatullayev believes that the double sentence for libel indicates that the government has no intention of releasing his son in the foreseeable future. “Eynulla is no more a prisoner. He is a hostage,” he commented.
Fatullayev himself, in a November 27 letter to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, repeated his assertion that he is a political prisoner, sentenced for his past criticism of government policies. “If the truth is on your tongue, it’s like you have a bomb in your pocket and it may explode at any time,” he wrote.
The government has denied any bias against Fatullayev. During a November 22 Court of Appeals hearing, prosecutor Maharram Mustafayev asserted that Fatullayev was being treated like any other Azerbaijani citizen.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.