Eynulla Fatullayev goes on trial on “trumped up” drugs charges while the European Court examines previous charges. Vugar Gojayev reports from Azerbaijan
A Baku court will today (9 April) open a new trial into the case of imprisoned journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, an investigative journalist and staunch critic of Azerbaijani government. If convicted, Fatullayev will face three more years in prison in addition to the eight-and-a-half years term he has been serving since April 2007.
Prior to his arrest in 2007, Fatullayev was the chief-editor of country’s two most outspoken and highest circulated newspapers, Realniy Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan. He was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of defamation, terrorism and tax evasion charges, convictions human rights groups call politically-motivated. Both of his papers have been effectively closed since May 2007.
Azerbaijan has been a member of the Council of Europe since 2001, and in late December 2009, at a time when the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR) was planning to hear an appeal of Fatullayev’s 2007 convictions, Azeri prosecutors brought a fresh drug-possession charge against Fatullayev, who strongly rejects the accusations and says the drugs were intentionally planted on him.
The Azeri authorities claim prison guards found 0.223 grams of heroin in Fatullayev’s shoes and jacket at Penitentiary #12 — a high-security prison. He has been charged under article 234.1 of Criminal Code (illegal purchase or storage without a purpose of selling narcotics or psychotropic substances in an amount exceeding necessary limit for personal consumption). Miklos Haraszti, formally the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on press freedom has said that he “visited Eynulla Fatullayev twice in his high security-prison and find[s] allegations of heroin smuggling or possession highly improbable.”
Azeri commentators believe the ECHR decision — expected shortly —- would go against the government and would call for Fatullayev’s immediate release. “Knowing this”, says an opposition journalist, “the authorities invented the new charges to ensure Fatullayev remains in jail no matter what the ECHR decision found.” Naming Fatullayev a “prisoner of consciousness”, Amnesty International argued the drugs charges have been brought as part of an attempt to discredit him further while his case is being reviewed by the ECHR. Fatullayev’s lawyer, Elchin Sadigov thinks the “trumped-up charges were set up by the authorities to prevent the decision of the ECHR in near future”.
Fatullayev has a history of persecution in Azerbaijan, including threats, attacks, and persecution for his writings. Based on his account and the Azerbaijani authorities’ long record of planting drugs to silence the regime critics, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the charges “fabricated” and “intended to prolong Fatullayev’s stay behind the bars”. Similarly, when another opposition journalist Mirza Sakit was sentenced to three years in jail in 2006 for allegedly “selling and using heroin” charges, the human rights groups argued the drugs were planted on Sakit during an illegal police search designed to silence him.
Fatullayev’s case was again in spotlight recently when he made a statement accusing the Ministry of National Security (MNS) of masterminding the murder of opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov in March 2005. The ministry said the accusations were “slanderous, irresponsible and illogical” and interrogated the editors of leading mass media, including Azadliq Radio, Turan News Agency, and the Musavat and Azadliq newspapers concerning the reasons for the publication of Fatullayev’s sensational statements by these media outlets.
International right groups have repeatedly raised their concerns about the government’s absolute grip on the media and the deteriorating climate of impunity against opposition journalists. Azerbaijan continues to show a downtrend trajectory in international media freedom indexes, with Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) ranking Azerbaijan 146th out of 175 countries in 2009.
As the judiciary system in Azerbaijan remains highly corrupt, and notorious for being totally dependent on the executive — often issuing political decisions — few believe the court will fairly investigate the drug charges against Fatullayev. “During the trial”, says Fatullayev’s lawyer, “we will do our best to prove that this conviction is utterly unfounded”.
Vugar Gojayev is a freelance journalist writing on the developments in the South Caucasus