Azerbaijan Must Release All Imprisoned Journalists

This photo taken Sunday, March 2, 2014, shows Azerbaijani Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,
This photo taken Sunday, March 2, 2014, shows Azerbaijani Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in Baku, Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan detained Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative journalist, on Friday whose reporting has often featured the business dealings of top politicians in the country. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)

It was a pleasant but humid May afternoon almost four years ago when I stood on the balcony of the palace at Zağulba Bağları with Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan. The Caspian Sea lay below, placid and peaceful, symbolizing the bright prospects of the country.

We spoke about the future and about a new generation of Azerbaijani -- educated, energetic, young people who offered great hope and opportunity to the nation.

We specifically talked about young people being what they are, the value of a fully engaged and outspoken, even rebellious with differing opinions -- with the hope that the country inevitably would morph into a modern, free and open society. For a time, there seemed to be reason for optimism. We engaged in a number of joint efforts and soon after my visit journalists and bloggers were released from jail. There were moves to rewrite and liberalize laws. There was hope.

But fast forward to today. That hope has ended. Journalists and free-expression advocates sit in Azerbaijani jails in record numbers. Their lot is growing. Azerbaijan scores near the bottom of every objective ranking of nations based on free media and free expression criteria.

So it came as no surprise when Swiss authorities confirmed earlier this month that Emin Huseynov has been hiding out in its Embassy in Baku since August when he narrowly escaped arrest.

Huseynov, 35, made a harrowing escape with police on his trail. Authorities had already tried to raid the NGO's headquarters and searched the home of his mother, taking her computer.

Huseynov now cools his heels on diplomatic turf (out of the clutches of police) while facing formal charges of tax evasion, illegal business dealings and abuse of power. His real crime is running a non-governmental organization, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, which defends journalists' rights in a country where free media is under constant assault.

Huseynov is far from alone in being prosecuted.

There are more than 10 members of the media, including journalists, bloggers and social media activists, in prison today -- one of the largest numbers of any country that is part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The lengths to which Azerbaijani authorities will go to round up dissenting voices are troubling.

As the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media I have spoken out on numerous occasions. Especially troublesome is the case of Khadija Ismayilova, now in pre-trial detention, who was arrested in early December on charges of inciting a person to commit suicide. Ismailova, a reporter for Radio Azadliq, has been the target of an ugly sexual smear campaign. In mid-February the all-too-common illegal business dealings and abuse of power charges were added to her list of sins. In addition, while in detention, she was found liable on controversial criminal libel charges and a fine has been imposed on her.

Others sitting in prison or pre-trial detention on trumped-up charges include Rasul Jafarov, a free speech advocate, on charges of abuse of power and tax evasion; Seymur Hazi, a columnist for the newspaper Azadliq, on a charge of hooliganism; Omar Mamedov and Abdul Abilov, bloggers, on charges of illegal storage and sale of drugs; Parviz Hashimli, a journalist, on charges of smuggling and illegal storage and sale of firearms; Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of news website, on various charges, including drug possession and inciting hatred and Rashad Ramazanov, an independent blogger, on charges of illegal storage and sale of drugs.

The systematic shutdown of dissenting voices and their outlets are clear violations of commitments on free media and free expression that Azerbaijan has signed on to as a participating State of the OSCE.

But most of the world appears disinterested as Azerbaijan clamps down even harder on the country's nascent media and civil society.

Is that analysis seems too facile? Is it simply a matter of business interests trumping human rights?

Hence, a high-profile diplomatic row with the Swiss might shake some countries from their somnolent state. Emin Huysenov, Khadija Ismayilova and all other members of the media are now the face of free media, free expression and civil society in Azerbaijan. They have done nothing wrong -- they are just doing a job. For this many of them stand trial or have already been convicted.

Just four years ago it seemed to me that Azerbaijan had a promising future for its media and civil society. Now, for free expression and civil society advocates, the future is just black.

It is in the hands of President Aliyev to change course and fulfil the dream of a modern, free and open Azerbaijan. Few, including me, a friend of Azerbaijan, are willing to assume he will. But he must, as the first step, let all journalists go. He must set them free. For the future of democracy in Azerbaijan.


Mijatović is the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.