Azerbaijani journalist given nine-year prison sentence
IPI expresses concern
By: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser
VIENNA, March 13, 2013 – The International Press Institute (IPI) expressed concern after a court in Baku yesterday sentenced an Azerbaijani journalist to nine years in prison on bribery-related charges that his supporters maintain were politically motivated.
Former Khural editor Avaz Zeynalli has been behind bars since October 2011, when a pro-government lawmaker accused him of demanding money from her to avoid the release of compromising information.
The lawmaker, Gular Akhmedova, resigned from Azerbaijan’s parliament in 2012 after a video surfaced in which she allegedly solicited a bribe in a scheme to sell a seat in parliament. She currently faces criminal charges for her role in the alleged scheme.
Zeynalli has repeatedly denied Akhmedova’s claim, reportedly maintaining that he only spoke with her after she made repeated attempts to contact him through intermediaries. He said that Akhmedova offered him money in exchange for loyalty to the authorities.
He was convicted yesterday on charges of receiving a bribe, extortion, contempt of court for failing to satisfy a judgment and tax evasion. Local sources told IPI that Zeynalli was also fined approximately €4,000 for tax evasion and that the court prohibited him from engaging in commercial activity for one year following his release from prison.
Umud Mirzayev, a member of IPI’s Executive Board, commented: “As the chairman of the IPI Azerbaijan National Committee, we are saddened by the judgment of nine years imprisonment, although the charges against him were unrelated to his professional activities. At this point we will continue to observe the final outcome after all legal options have been exhausted. We are happy that his legal team are pursing the option of an appeal.”
Prosecutors in the case had requested an 11-year prison term. Zeynalli’s attorney, Mansur Bayramov, told local media that his client anticipated that the court would punish him, but that Zeynalli did not expect the punishment to be so severe.
Local IPI sources said that government representatives have issued no comment on Zeynalli’s sentence or on his supporters’ claims.
Zeynalli said in a television interview shortly before his 2011 arrest that he and his now-defunct newspaper were targeted by authorities due to his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev.
In the month preceding Zeynalli’s arrest, authorities raided the newspaper’s offices and seized its property for failure to pay fines ordered in a defamation lawsuit brought by presidential administration head Ramiz Mehdiyev and others. Zeynalli has maintained that his failure to pay was not wilful, but due to the lack of sufficient funds.
Mehdiyev was also implicated in the alleged scheme for which Akhmedova, reportedly his former protégé, faces charges, but he has denied involvement.