NAKHICHEVAN (RFE/RL)–Authorities in Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan are continuing a strict crackdown against opposition journalists in the region.
Police Friday interrogated two journalists, one day after another was detained and a fourth, RFE/RL correspondent Ilgar Nasibov, was sentenced on slander charges.
Nasibov was arrested and summarily sentenced to 90 days in prison on December 6 on charges of slandering police officers after he sent an e-mail to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev complaining about police harassment of journalists in Nakhichevan.
Nasibov’s wife, Malahat Nasibova, says she cannot find out where he is being incarcerated. His family has received neither a copy of the indictment against him nor the court’s verdict.
Nasibova, who is also an RFE/RL correspondent, was detained and interrogated Friday together with Mohammad Rzayev, a reporter for the opposition newspaper "Azadliq." Both were released after being questioned for approximately an hour.
A fourth journalist, Elman Abbasov, remains in police custody after police raided his home on the evening of December 6, confiscated his computer, and brought him into detention.
Media watchdogs, human rights groups, and Western governmen’s have harshly criticized Azerbaijan this year for the harassment and imprisonment of opposition journalists. With his sentencing, Nasibov became the 10th journalist currently behind bars in the country.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called Azerbaijan "the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia." And the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders has placed Azerbaijan near the bottom of the group’s press-freedom rankings, and that Nakhichevan is among the most repressive regions in the country.
"Nakhichevan is a place where brutality against journalists happens very often," Bourrat tells RFE/RL. "It is considered a region without rights. There are no rights respected there. The law is not applied. There is no freedom of expression."
Originally part of Armenia, the Nakhichevan region is an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenia. Along with Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhichevan was incorporated into Azerbaijani territory by Stalin in 1923. It is run like a personal fiefdom by regional head Vasif Talibov, who is a close relative of President Aliyev.
Azerbaijanis refer to the closed and repressive region, where opposition activists and independent journalists face constant harassment, as "Azerbaijan’s North Korea."
A series of abuses–some of them bizarre–have been documented in media reports.
According to the reports, local authorities have ordered state employees to perform manual labor on weekends as a condition for keeping their jobs. People who fail to pay utility bills have been seized and tied to trees outside police precincts until a family member or friend can come and settle the debt. Residents are forbidden from hanging laundry from their balconies and from baking bread at home. In a region where average salaries are approximately $130 per month, farmers are charged a steep tax for owning more than one cow or one sheep–$25 per cow, $10 per sheep.
Nasibova tells RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service that local authorities are seeking to silence journalists like her and her husband who have reported on these abuses. She said she expects to be arrested soon.
Azerbaijani lawmakers Friday debated the Nasibov case in parliament.
Isa Habibbayli, a deputy representing Nakhichevan, denied that journalists in the region were being targeted.
But opposition lawmaker Arzu Samedbayli criticized what he called "arbitrary" rule in Nakhichevan, saying Nasibov’s arrest fits into a larger pattern of repression.
"We hear a lot about arbitrariness on the part of the authorities, but this is nothing compared to what is happening in Nakhichevan," Samedbayli said. "Tea houses are being destroyed in the region’s villages, despite protests from the people. Other strange things are happening in Nakhichevan. The authorities are destroying the ovens people use to bake bread in their homes because they say this harms the environment. They are forcing people to buy bread from shops owned by the state monopoly."
In the past year, Azerbaijan has witnessed a wave of what critics call politically motivated criminal cases against opposition journalists.