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Two men with police assistance beat and drag away a man on Azadliq Square in Baku (2003). Photo: Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch
Two men with police assistance beat and drag away a man on Azadliq Square in Baku (2003).
Photo: Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch

"Donkey-gate" was by no means a singular occurrence in Azerbaijan and Emin and Adnan were not the first youth activists to be put in jail.

In recent years, a number of journalists have been harassed, imprisoned or even murdered in Azerbaijan. One of the best reports on media freedom in Azerbaijan is by Human Rights Watch, titled "Beaten, Blacklisted and Behind Bars: The Vanishing Space for Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan" (October 2010). The report details Azerbaijan's media landscape and documents cases of violence against and harassment of journalists.

"In a number of cases, government officials have brought other criminal charges against journalists to silence (critical journalists). For example, the authorities used terrorism, incitement to racial, national and religious hatred, as well as tax evasion charges to prosecute the outspoken government critic Eynulla Fatullayev, founder and editor of the two most popular newspapers in Azerbaijan. Fatullayev has been in prison since 2007, serving an eight-and-half-year sentence. In two other cases Ganimed Zahidov, an outspoken editor, and Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, young activists who criticized government policies through social media sites were jailed on bogus hooliganism charges after entrapment in staged fights." (p. 2).

A good resource is also Freedom House's annual Nations in Transit and Freedom in the World reports. The Freedom House Nations in Transit report of 2010 for Azerbaijan rates Azerbaijan in the "independent media" category with 6.75 out of 7, with 7 being the lowest possible rating. This is the same figure as for 2009. Since 1999 when Azerbaijan was included in the index, its score has either worsened or stayed the same with the exception of 2002 when there was a 0.25 point improvement.

Amnesty International has also monitored the situation with regard to the freedom of expression. Its February 2008 report "Azerbaijan: Mixed Messages on Freedom Expression" contains profiles of several journalists that are believed to be in prison in Azerbaijan for political reasons. The report blames the government for the deteriorating situation:

"The government of Azerbaijan is engaged in concerted efforts to limit the space for freedom of expression in the country. Senior government officials frequently bring criminal defamation and other charges against journalists and human rights defenders criticizing the government. Dozens of journalists have been prosecuted and imprisoned or fined. Police carry out physical attacks on journalists with impunity, deliberately interfering with their efforts to investigate a range of issues of public interest." (p. 2).

Some of the most prominent recent victims of this deteriorating situation are the following:


Elmar Huseynov

Elmar Huseynov's funeral

On 2 March 2005, Elmar Huseynov was shot dead in front of his house in Baku in what appeared to be a contract killing. The case attracted domestic and international attention.[1] Huseynov's funeral was attended by some 10,000 people in Baku.

Elmar Huseynov was born in 1967 and became an award-winning investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of the oppositional Russian-language weekly Monitor. He became known for his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's administration and for articles exposing corruption within government ranks. For years prior to his murder, Huseynov was repeatedly slapped with heavy fines for "libel and defamation" of high-ranking government officials, including the president and the defence minister. In 2001, he was sentenced to six months in prison for defamation of Baku Mayor Hadjabala Abutalibov. His killer has not yet been found.[2] The prosecution identified two individuals, Georgians of Azeri descent, as prime suspects, yet no arrests have been made. Azeri authorities claim that Georgia has refused to extradite the suspects, while Georgian authorities claim that no formal request has been made.[3]


Ruslan Bashirli

Ruslan Bashirli

On 3 August 2005, 27-year-old youth activist Bashirli was arrested on charges of plotting a government coup at the instigation of Armenian secret services. On 12 July 2006 Bashirli was sentenced to seven years in prison in a trial where there were no defence lawyers or representatives of the media. He was recognized as a political prisoner by Amnesty International. In February 2012, with five months left of his seven-year sentence, Bashirli appealed directly to the president for pardon. In his plea, Bashirli said that he "understood his mistakes", denounced the opposition and expressed full support for the President's policies. On 15 March 2012 President Aliyev signed an amnesty act releasing 62 prisoners, including Bashirli.

Background: Ruslan Bashirli was the leader of the Yeni Fikir (New Idea) movement, established in 2004 as the youth wing of the Popular Front party. The movement campaigned for free and fair elections in the run-up to the November 2005 parliamentary ballot. His arrest in summer 2005 was based on a videotape which showed Ruslan Bashirli taking 2,000 USD in cash from a person whom Azerbaijani intelligence described as an Armenian agent. The recording had been allegedly made at an event in Tbilisi on 28-29 July where Bashirli had travelled to meet with democracy activists. Allegedly, Bashirli was supposed to receive another 20,000 USD in case the coup succeeded. Bashirli later confessed that he was acting at the request of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and that Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli had instructed this transaction in preparation for a revolution and so on. Government-controlled television repeatedly ran the video showing Bashirli accepting the money. In September 2005 two deputy chairmen of Yeni Fikir were arrested as well, also on the charges of plotting a coup. His deputies also received prison sentences of four years and five years respectively.[4]


Genimet Zahidov (Ganimat Zahid)

Genimet Zahidov

Genimet Zahidov is the former editor-in-chief of the major oppositional daily Azadliq and the author of many government-critical articles. In November 2007, he was arrested on hooliganism charges. He had allegedly insulted a female passer-by in the street and then injured the man accompanying her. During the trial Zahidov denied all charges. In March 2008, Zahidov was sentenced to four years in. In March 2010, Genimet was granted parole on presidential orders.

Amnesty International spoke of "a concerted attempt on the part of the Azerbaijani authorities to silence a critical opposition voice."[5] The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media declared that "a pattern of repression as damaging as actual criminalisation of journalism continues."[6]

Genimet is the brother of another oppositional journalist, Sakid Zakhidov, also of the Azadliq newspaper. The official website of the Azadliq newspaper (available in Azeri and English) is at


Mirza Sakit (Sakit Zahidov)

Mirza Sakit. Photo:

Sakit Zahidov, the brother of Ganimat Zahidov, is a well-known journalist, poet and satirist for the opposition newspaper Azadliq. He was arrested in June 2006 on heroin possession charges and sentenced in January 2007 to three years in prison. Zahidov maintains that the drugs were planted on him.

Amnesty International did not consider Zahidov's trial fair.[7] The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe drew special attention to Sakit Zahidov's case, using it as evidence for the deteriorating media situation in Azerbaijan.[8] Sakit Zahidov was granted amnesty and released in April 2009.


Eynulla Fatullayev

Eynulla Fatullayev

Eynulla Fatullayev, born in 1976, is an Azerbaijani journalist who was imprisoned from 2007 to 2011. In April 2007 Fatullayev was arrested for defaming "the Azerbaijani nation" due to an Internet forum posting attributed to him by prosecutors. The author of this posting claimed that the Khojaly massacre during the war over Nagorno Karabakh in February 1992 was committed by Azerbaijani forces. Although Fatullayev denied having written the entry, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. In July 2007, the Ministry of National Security brought additional charges – of threat of terrorism and inciting ethnic and religious hatred – in connection with Fatullayev's article which criticised the government's "anti-Iranian" foreign policy stance.[9] Finally, in September 2007 Fatullayev was charged with tax evasion. Fatullayev is currently serving a combined sentence of 8.5 years. In April 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the journalist must be granted immediate release and a substantial monetary compensation.[10] The Azerbaijani authorities failed to comply with the ruling. Instead in July 2010, Fatullayev was sentenced again, for an additional 2.5 years on drug possession charges. The prison authorities claimed they found drugs on the journalist.

Amnesty International declared Fatullayev to be a prisoner of conscience.[11] For Reporters without Borders, there was little doubt that Fatullayev has been put behind bars because of "his journalist activity -- because he is an outspoken critic of President [Ilham] Aliyev and his government."[12] He used to be the editor-in-chief of the independent Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan, as well as of the Azeri-language daily Gündelik Azerbaijan. Both publications, which no longer exist, were known for their critical views. Fatullayev had also been a journalist at the oppositional weekly Monitor. As a result of his reporting, Fatullayev has been repeatedly convicted of defamation, including of government ministers, and ordered to pay high fines. Among his most controversial articles was the "Karabakh Diary"[13] published in April 2005 in Realny Azerbaijan. In the article Fatullayev described his recent trip to the occupied territories here and challenged some aspects of the official Azerbaijani version of the Khojaly massacre, believed to be largest massacre committed during this conflict with 600 civilians killed by Armenian forces. In his article, Fatullayev wrote that he had spoken with surviving IDPs from Khojaly who allegedly said that the Armenian forces had warned them of the upcoming assault on the town and opened a "humanitarian corridor," which IDP's successfully used to escape.[14]

Amnesty International poster: Free Eynulla Fatullayev!
Amnesty International poster: Free Eynulla Fatullayev!

On 26 May, after having spent four years in prison, Fatullayev was unexpectedly released under a presidential pardon decree. The release came less than two weeks after Azerbaijan's victory in the Eurovision Song Contest 2011, which put the country into the international media spotlight, and two days after a "mass tweet" campaign in Fatullayev's support organized by Amnesty International UK.


Agil Khalil

Agil Khalil
Agil Khalil

Agil Khalil was a reporter for the Azadliq newspaper, a publication which maintains ties to the oppositional Popular Front Party. As many other Azerbaijani journalists, Khalil became the victim of physical assaults and a smear campaign. In February 2008 25-year-old Khalil was beaten by national security officers as he was investigating a possibly illegal real estate deal in one Baku's public gardens. An even more serious attack followed soon. On 13 March after leaving his workplace Khalil was assaulted by several unknown men and stabbed in the chest by one of them. According to Khalil, he recognized one of the assailants as the man who had been following him in the previous days.

In April 2008 the state-owned channel AzTV aired a 30-minute tape featuring an interview with a certain Sergey Strekalin who claimed that he was a homosexual lover of Khalil's and attacked him out of jealousy. Khalil denied these claims or that Strekalin was his attacker. Nevertheless, Strekalin was later sentenced to 18-month-imprisonment. On 22 April 2008 another channel, the pro-government Lider TV, aired a broadcast presenting Khalil as someone belonging to the alleged gay circle of opposition leader Ali Kerimli.

On 7 May 2008, Khalil was attacked again as two men tried to push him onto the subway tracks. Later that same day, several individuals tried to abduct him. Khalil was able to escape unharmed from both incidents. Afterwards, fearing for his life, Khalil stopped his work at the Azadliq newspaper and tried to leave Azerbaijan. Despite having a visa and invitation, he was prevented from leaving the country several times by the state border service, on the grounds that his presence was required for the ongoing court trials. According to some observers, Khalil became the victim of the rivalry between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security. On 24 July 2008 Khalil, who received assistance from the French Embassy, was finally able to depart Azerbaijan for France on an invitation from the Reporters without Borders. He currently lives in Paris.


Adnan Hajizade

Adnan Hajizade with his parents Hikmet and Bahar

In July 2009, Adnan Hajizade was arrested on hooliganism charges. In November 2009, Adnan was sentenced to 24 months in prison. After several failed appeals, the remainder of this sentence was suspended and he was released on parole on 18 November 2010.

Adnan Hajizade was born in 1983 in Baku. Adnan's father, Hikmet Hajizade, is a prominent opposition figure in Azerbaijan. He was one of the leaders of the Azerbaijani Popular Front independence movement in the late 1980s. Adnan went twice to the US on US government fellowships. He attended high school in the US and obtained a Bachelor degree in political science from Richmond University in 2005, after which he returned to Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, he had studied at the private Khazar University in Baku. He did his military service in Azerbaijan and afterwards worked in the communications department at British Petroleum Azerbaijan. In 2006, Adnan became one of the founders of the Ol! (To be) youth movement, which promotes youth empowerment and independent thinking. Adnan headed Ol's media department, producing a number of videos. The most famous – which may have brought Adnan behind bars – is the "Esel Heinz video" (German for "Donkey Heinz video").


Emin Milli

Emin Milli

Emin was arrested with his friend Adnan Hajizade in July 2009 on fabricated hooliganism charges. Sentenced to 30 months in prison in November 2009, Emin's sentence was suspended and he was released on parole on 19 November 2010, one day after Adnan.

Emin Abdullayev was born in 1979 in Baku. Emin Milli is his pen name and the name by which he is known widely. Emin studied law at Baku State University in Azerbaijan and at Saarbrucken University's European Law School in Germany. He worked for a number of international organisations in Azerbaijan, including the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES). He also advised the Council of Europe on matters related to political prisoners in Azerbaijan and was a political analyst for the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission in Azerbaijan.[15] In 2005, Emin co-founded the Alumni Network (AN), a loose organisation that unites mostly foreign-educated Azerbaijanis and promotes democratic values. He was also involved in the creation of the Forum for Azerbaijani Students in Europe (FASE), launched in 2006 in Brussels to bring together young expatriate Azerbaijanis. Emin later became increasingly critical of the Azerbaijani authorities. After a March 2009 constitutional referendum which lifted limits on the number of presidential terms Emin gave a number of critical speeches at the House of Lords in London in November 2008 and at Columbia University in April 2009.


Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova is one of the Azerbaijan's best investigative journalists. She has gained recognition for her reports exposing corruption in Azerbaijan's ruling class, including the presidential family. From 2008 until 2010 Ismayilova was the bureau chief for Radio Azadliq, RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service. She is currently hosting the talk show "After Work" on Radio Azadliq and is a frequent contributor to RFE/RL and EurasiaNet online publications. In February 2012 Ismayilova was selected as a recipient of a prestigious award from the German ZEIT Foundation called the Gerd Bucerius Prize for Free Press in Eastern Europe.

In March 2012 Khadija Ismayilova became the target of a blackmail campaign. On 7 March 2012, she received explicit photos of herself accompanied by a warning to "behave" or risk defamation. Ismayilova went public with the threat and vowed to continue her investigative activities. Soon, the official newspaper of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party published an unsigned article which described Ismayilova as a person indulging in drunkenness and making fun of the traditional female roles in Azerbaijan. The following day, on 14 March 2012, a sex video showing Ismayilova in her own bedroom was posted online on a website feigning a connection to the oppositional party Musavat. The website was hosted by a Houston-based company. The campaign aimed at discrediting the journalist drew strong condemnation from a large number of human rights groups and international organizations.


Jamal Ali and Natiq Kamilov, musicians

Jamal Ali Natiq Kamilov
Jamal Ali, singer - Natiq Kamilov, bass player

On 17 March 2012, several opposition youth organizations held a protest rally on the outskirts of Baku, which was attended by some 1,000-1,500 people. Contrary to the usual practice, the rally was sanctioned by the Baku Executive Authority. Participants displayed slogans calling on the government to free prisoners of conscience, demanding an end to corruption in the education system, and criticizing the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.

Jamal Ali (24) and his rap band Bulistan performed anti-government songs at the rally. ("Bulistan" is an anagram of "Istanbul," the city where all band members are currently studying). The artists' use of profane language displeased the police, and a fight ensued, during which Jamal Ali cursed President Ilham Aliyev and Aliyev's late mother. The police then arrested Ali together with another band member, guitarist Natiq Kamilov (24), and the event organizer, activist Etibar Salmanli (25).

The court sentenced Ali to a 10-day detention, and Salmanli and Kamilov to five and six days respectively. During an appeals hearing on March 21 Ali claimed that while in detention, he was beaten by the police with rubber truncheons on his heels for two hours. The musicians also said they were denied contact with their families and lawyers. Nevertheless, the sentences were upheld. Jamal Ali was released after the end of the 10-day detention, on 27 March 2012, several days after Natiq Kamilov and Etibar Salmanli.

[1] Then Secretary General of the Council of Europe Terry Davis said in a statement: "I am shocked by the brutal murder of Elmar Huseynov, which has all the hallmarks of a contract killing and I condemn it in strongest terms." Human Rights House, "Remembering a Brave Journalist in Azerbaijan", 2 March 2010.

[2] Reporters without Borders, "Murder of Elmar Huseynov. The investigation should not stop at finding the killers", Investigative report, May 2005, p. 7

[4] Shahin Abbasov and Khadija Ismailova, "Verdict against Azerbaijan youth activists raises international concern", EurasiaNet, 18 July 2006

[5] Amnesty International, Public Statement, "Azerbaijan: Persecution of opposition newspaper continues unabated", 20 March 2008.

[8] PACE, Resolution 1545 (2007), "Honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan", 16 April 2007.

[9] For the original text of the article in Russian, see IFEX;

[10] ECHR, "Case of Fatullayev v. Azerbaijan (Application no. 40984/07)", Judgment, 22 April 2010, pp. 52-53.

[11] Amnesty International, "Azerbaijan: Eynulla Fatullayev".

[13] "Karabakh Diary" (in Russian).

[14] For an English translation of the relevant excerpt of the article, see ECHR, "Case of Fatullayev v. Azerbaijan (Application no. 40984/07)", Judgment, 22 April 2010, pp. 3-4.

[15] "Emin Milli's Bio", AdnanEmin blog.

March 2011

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