Rights activists in Azerbaijan say the government’s recent sentencing to prison of an opposition party leader on charges of slander is another sign of how defamation laws are being used against political opponents and civil society activists in the country.

Last month the Baku Appellate Court upheld the five-month prison sentence given to Ali Aliyev, the chairman of the opposition Citizens and Development Party on defamation charges under a lawsuit filed by a border guard.

Ali Aliyev and his lawyer, Javad Javadov, say his imprisonment is a violation of his freedom of expression and retaliation for his political activities.

Border guard Emil Jafarov filed the lawsuit against Ali Aliyev in response to his comments in a YouTube interview in which Aliyev expressed his doubts about Jafarov’s chances of surviving a deadly helicopter crash on November 30 of last year during training flights at the Garaheybat airfield in the Khizi region. Some 14 servicemen died in the crash and two were injured, one of whom was Lieutenant Colonel Emil Jafarov.

Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General’s Office blamed the helicopter crash on pilot error. However, Ali Aliyev had suggested the possibility Russia was involved, speculating it could have been sabotage. In his interview, Aliyev argued that it was impossible for someone to survive a deadly helicopter crash with no burns and only minor injuries. So he suggested that Jafarov’s presence on the flight was staged to back up the government’s explanation.

Aliyev’s lawyer complained of unfair treatment by the court and said his client was not given the chance to defend himself.

Human rights defender Zafar Ahmadov told VOA that defamation in Azerbaijan has reached unbearable levels, but high-profile slander cases like Aliyev’s are highlighting the issue and leading to more public discussion.

“There is no criminal act here. Of course, he should have been released. It has been proved once again that this is a political order. But in any case, Ali Aliyev, with his arrest, has served a sacred cause, which today has probably given a great impetus to the fight against defamation in the world, including Azerbaijan.”

Debate over criminalizing defamation

Independent lawyers and human rights activists believe that articles criminalizing defamation and insult in the media should be removed from the Criminal Code, which carries a penalty of more than $500 and maximum imprisonment of 3 years.

In addition, Article 323 of the Criminal Code, which deals with the dissemination of defamatory statements against the president of Azerbaijan, carries a punishment of imprisonment for up to five years.

Lawyer Khalid Agaliyev says that the issue of abolishing criminal liability for libel and insult has been on the government’s agenda several times.

“Relevant laws and drafts have been developed, particularly with the support of the OSCE,” he said. “But in the end, the government has not approved them.”

The media legal expert believes that the criminal liability for defamation intimidates the media, journalists, and those who exercise the right to freedom of expression, in the first place, and discourages criticism.

“The abolition of accountability will further encourage people to express themselves freely. Apparently, the government does not see the need for this and is delaying the adoption of the law,” Agaliyev said.

Azerbaijan committed to removing or changing its libel and insult laws upon its accession to the Council of Europe. But it has not yet done so.

Zahid Oruj, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament and chairman of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, told VOA that not all Council of Europe member states have adopted legislation on defamation.

He said that the Azerbaijani government has been actively working to include the project on defamation to be considered in its legislative system. According to him, under the new law, journalists will not be punished in a criminal court, but they could still face administrative liabilities.

“The Azerbaijani government, especially with collaboration of OSCE and the relevant structures of the Council of Europe, has been actively lobbying, promoting, advocating, holding joint meetings, raising awareness and doing other activities to include this project in our legislative system, especially since 2012. In other words, journalist’s actions would not be treated at the level of criminal law, and sanctions against them would be removed from the relevant law. But the journalists administrative liability would remain,” Oruj said.

In his view, finding consensus on the issue is a challenge.

“In other words, it is not so easy to find a trilateral agreement between the media, relevant government agencies and society, which is necessary for the adoption of such a law.”

Local and international organizations report that defamation charges against citizens, public and political figures, and especially journalists, have increased in Azerbaijan in recent years.

Lawyer Agaliyev says that between 2017 and 2019, journalists were sued 72 times for slander and insult.

Azerbaijan is among 56 countries included in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report in the “non-free” category. Azerbaijan, along with 15 other countries, had the worst score in the category of political rights and civil liberties.

This story was originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.