14 May 2015
Dear Ms Amanpour,
I am writing to you as the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety. Congratulations on your appointment! You may remember me from the Rory Peck Awards in 2013, where I received the Martin Adler Award for my freelance journalism in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the situation in Azerbaijan has drastically deteriorated since our meeting in London, and my family and I have been forced to leave the country for safety.
Now, I am writing to you with some requests from the Sport for Rights campaign, a coalition of international organisations working to promote human rights in Azerbaijan in the context of the inaugural European Games, which will take place in Baku this June. In the run-up to the Games, the Azerbaijani authorities have engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence all criticism and dissent.
As a result, eight journalists are now behind bars on spurious charges. One of them is prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whom you met when she received an award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2012. Khadija is now in detention, facing serious jail time on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power, and inciting someone to attempt suicide. Khadija has been targeted for her fearless reporting, much of which focused on corruption of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, including President Aliyev and his family.
Five human rights defenders are also in jail on spurious charges, all strong advocates of freedom of expression. Another human rights defender, Emin Huseynov, remains trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku, facing arrest on spurious charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Emin has been targeted for his work as director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Azerbaijan’s leading freedom of expression advocacy organization. Emin has long been at the forefront of promoting freedom of expression and free media. He is a tireless defender of free speech, not only in his native Azerbaijan but also throughout the former Soviet Union and beyond.
Besides arrests, the authorities have stepped up other forms of pressure on journalists. Violence against journalists remains a serious problem, with complete impunity for their attackers. Harassment, threats, and intimidation are an everyday reality for critical journalists. A growing number of journalists, like me, have been forced to leave the country for safety.
In light of these and other serious problems, the Sport for Rights campaign has three requests for you. Firstly, we urge you to make an immediate statement condemning the ongoing human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan and calling for the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders. We have enclosed a list of their names and case details, and can provide further information as needed.
Secondly, we ask that you take steps to hold UNESCO responsible for its freedom of expression mandate with respect to Azerbaijan. Despite the alarming freedom of expression situation in the country, Azerbaijan has received nothing but praise from UNESCO. Director-General Irina Bokova has consistently failed to mention freedom of expression in her public remarks related to Azerbaijan.
Finally, we encourage you to undertake a mission to Azerbaijan to investigate the situation in the country, visit our jailed colleagues, and raise these serious issues directly with the authorities, including First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who is herself a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. This would be particularly helpful in the aftermath of the European Games, as we are worried about possible acts of retribution towards our few remaining brave colleagues in the country, as has been the case after past international events.
Thank you for considering our requests, and as ever, for your support for freedom of expression. I would greatly appreciate anything you could do to help improve the situation in my country before it gets any worse.
APPENDIX: LIST OF JAILED JOURNALISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
- Nijat Aliyev – editor-in-chief of the website azadxeber.az, serving a 10-year prison sentence on spurious charges of drug possession and the illegal import and sale of religious literature.
- Araz Guliyev – editor of the website xeber44.com, serving an eight-year prison sentence on spurious charges of illegal possession of weapons, inciting hatred, and offensive action against the flag or emblem of Azerbaijan.
- Parviz Hashimli – Bizim Yol newspaper reporter and editor of the moderator.az website, serving an eight-year prison sentence on spurious charges of organising the sale of weapons from Iran.
- Seymur Hezi –Azadliq newspaper reporter and presenter of the Azerbaijan Hour satellite television programme, serving a five-year prison sentence on spurious hooliganism charges.
- Khadija Ismayilova – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist detained on spurious charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power, and inciting someone to attempt suicide.
- Hilal Mammadov – editor-in-chief of Tolishi Sedo newspaper, serving a five-year prison sentence on spurious charges of drug possession, treason, and inciting hatred.
- Rauf Mirkadirov – Zerkalo newspaper columnist, detained on spurious treason charges, awaiting trial.
- Tofig Yagublu – Yenu Musavat newspaper columnist, serving a five-year prison sentence on spurious charges of organising mass riots and using violence against police officers.
Jailed (and effectively jailed) human rights defenders:
- Intigam Aliyev – human rights lawyer and Chairman of the Legal Education Society, serving a 7.5-year prison sentence on spurious charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
- Emin Huseynov – Director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, trapped at the Swiss Embassy in Baku, facing arrest on spurious charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
- Rasul Jafarov – Chairman of the Human Rights Club, serving a 6.5-year prison sentence on spurious charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
- Anar Mammadli – Chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, serving a 5.5-year prison sentence on spurious charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
- Arif Yunus – historian and academic, detained on spurious charges of treason and fraud, awaiting trial.
- Leyla Yunus – Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, detained on spurious charges of treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship, awaiting trial.