Reporters Without Borders condemns the five-year jail sentence that a municipal court in the northern city of Sheki passed yesterday on the journalist Tofig Yagublu in connection with rioting in Ismaylli, another northern city, in January 2013.
Along with 17 other people, including Ilgar Mammadov, the head of the opposition movement REAL, Yagublu was convicted of "organizing mass riots" and "use of violence against police officers" under articles 220.1 and 315.2 of the penal code.
"Yagublu's conviction after more than a year of pre-trial detention is a case of political repression, pure and simple," said Johann Bihr, head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. "No hard evidence was presented at the trial, which repeatedly violated defence rights.
"It is shocking that such biased and summary justice can be rendered in a country that will soon take over the Council of Europe's rotating presidency. This verdict must be overturned on appeal and all the charges against Yagublu must be dismissed."
The court accepted prosecution claims that Yagublu incited the population to rise up in Ismaylli, where demonstrations calling for the governor's resignation degenerated into rioting in January 2013. Video recordings nonetheless showed that Yagublu did not arrive in the city until the second day of the clashes, when they were nearly over.
Yagublu and Mammadov, who were arrested on 4 February 2013, repeated throughout the trial that they went to Ismaylli just to obtain first-hand information and understand the origins of the unrest.
Witnesses and defence lawyers were constantly harassed during the trial. Many prosecution witnesses said their initial statements were obtained under pressure. Others were unable to say which of the defendants had allegedly participated in the rioting.
A reporter for the Yeni Musavat, Azadlig and Bizim Yol newspapers, Yagublu is also vice-president of the opposition party Musavat. He writes columns critical of the government and has done investigative reporting on criminal cases and corruption.
He caused a stir in 2009 with a report in which he demonstrated that the prosecutor-general's office lied about a shooting incident at the Baku oil academy in which 12 people were killed.
The authorities are cracking down harder and harder on journalists and bloggers in Azerbaijan, which is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Arrests are increasing in frequency while the few remaining independent media are in the process of being squeezed out of existence, threatening the survival of media pluralism.