Azerbaijan journalist pardoned after almost three years in prison

The Azerbaijan authorities released an opposition journalist on 9 April, after he had served almost three years in prison. Sakit Zahidov was pardoned under an amnesty act passed in March by the country’s parliament, the Milli Mejlis.

Serious doubt had been cast on Sakit Zahidov’s conviction and imprisonment after the authorities’ failed to clarify ambiguities in the evidence and irregularities in trial procedures. Amnesty International considered him to be a prisoner of conscience.

The organization welcomed his release while expressing its concern that opposition and independent journalists continue to face harassment, physical assault, intimidation and imprisonment on account of their journalistic activity.

A well-known satirist for the opposition newspaper Azadlıq (Freedom), as well as a poet, Sakit Zahidov was arrested on 23 June 2006 on charges of possessing and distributing illegal drugs. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for being a user of illegal drugs.

Amnesty International said it believed that the real reason for his imprisonment was solely the authorities’ attempt to curb his right to freedom of expression and silence his critical reporting of their activities.

After his arrest, Sakit Zahidov alleged that evidence had been planted and claimed that the authorities targeted him because of his work. The authorities also harassed members of his family and the Azadliq newspaper.

Two other journalists of opposition newspapers currently imprisoned by the Azerbaijan authorities are Eynulla Fətullayev and Qənimət Zahid.

Having worked on the outspoken weekly Monitor newspaper, which closed after the murder of its editor Elmar Hüseynov, Eynulla Fətullayev then launched two popular opposition newspapers. Realny Azerbaydzhan (Real Azerbaijan) and Gündəlik Azərbaycan (Azerbaijan Daily) were both closed in May 2007 after a series of inspections of their premises by the authorities.

Eynulla Fətullayev was tried twice in 2007 and sentenced to eight and a half years’ imprisonment on charges of defamation, terrorism, incitement of ethnic hatred and tax evasion. Amnesty International has said that it believes he is a prisoner of conscience and has called for his immediate and unconditional release.

Sakit Zahidov’s brother Qənimət Zahid is the editor-in-chief of Azadlıq. He was arrested on charges of hooliganism on 10 November 2007; he was alleged to have insulted a female passer-by outside his office, and then to have inflicted minor bodily harm on a man accompanying her.

Azerbaijani human rights activists have previously documented the use of “provocations” against opposition activists and many believe this case to have been artificially created to silence Qənimət Zahid’s journalism.

Qənimət Zahid was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in March 2008, on charges of hooliganism and assault. Amnesty International has said that it believes he is a possible prisoner of conscience and will call for his release if allegations that he was targeted for his journalistic activity are confirmed.