Media freedoms continue to be of great concern in Azerbaijan. Over the last six months, the international community has noted several physical attacks on independent journalists - as well as the opening of criminal libel cases - some with serious due process problems against journalists who have written pieces critical of the government.
The latest State Department human rights reports says the government of Azerbaijan continues to harass and physically attack members of the media who criticize the government. The most recent case of concern is that of Sakit Zakhidov, a columnist for the opposition newspaper, Azadlig. Mr. Zakhidov was arrested June 23rd and charged with possession and sale of a narcotic by Azerbaijani authorities. Mr. Zakhidov says the drugs were planted on him. In protest over the charges, Mr. Zakidov has been on a hunger strike since July 25th.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan and other human rights groups have condemned the arrest and prosecution of Mr. Zakhidov on charges the groups say are fabricated and politically motivated. According to press reports, these organizations have also demanded a, "transparent, independent and thorough investigation" of the charges leveled against Mr. Zakidov.
Mr. Zakidov's case represents a disturbing trend in Azerbaijan. Over the last eighteen months, opposition journalists have faced violent attacks and arrest on ostensibly false charges. On March 2nd, 2005, Elmar Huseynov, editor-in-chief of the opposition weekly, Monitor, was shot and killed outside his apartment in Baku, the capital. In March 2006, in two separate incidents, two opposition journalists were severely beaten and left for dead on the outskirts of Baku. None of the perpetrators of these crimes has been held accountable.
The charge of drug possession brought against Zakhidov has featured in the cases of other opponents of the current government. In November 2005, Anar Hasanov, member of an opposition political party, was arrested and sentenced to two years on charges of narcotics possession. In a written statement, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights said, "the charge of drug possession is fast becoming a tool for stifling opposition in Azerbaijan."
The government of Azerbaijan has an obligation to protect the right of journalists to report freely. As U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has said, "the intimidation and murder of journalists is an affront to all who value democratic values and must not be tolerated."
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.