Azerbaijan charges newspaper editor with treason

Wed Jul 4, 2012 9:54pm IST

* Charges include drug possession and fomenting strife

* Journalist could face life imprisonment

* Lawyers and rights activists say case is political

By Lada Evgrashina

BAKU, July 4 (Reuters) - Azerbaijan charged a prominent Azeri journalist and human rights activist on Wednesday with treason and "fomenting national strife", adding the charges to drug possession in a case his lawyers say is politically motivated.

Police arrested Khilal Mamedov, editor-in-chief of a popular newspaper in Azerbaijan's southern Talysh region, on June 22, saying they had seized five grams of heroin from him and found another 30 grams at his house.

"Mamedov was involved in cooperation with Iranian special services since 1992 ... He was giving information, which could be used against Azerbaijan, to Iranian intelligence," the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's office said in a statement.

Mamedov faces life imprisonment if found guilty of all charges.

Azerbaijan's Talysh region borders Iran and is home to several hundred thousand ethnic Talysh who speak their own language. The region rebelled against Baku's rule and declared independence in 1993, but its separatist movement was suppressed by authorities.

Mamedov's lawyers called the case "absurd".

"Khilal (Mamedov) considers that this case has been fabricated as authorities do not like his activities as a human rights activist," lawyer Anar Gasymly told Reuters.

Azeri human rights think-tank the Institute for Peace and Democracy called for Mamedov's immediate release, saying his arrest was "an example of pressure on human rights activists".

The previous editor of newspaper Tolishi Sado (Voice of Talysh), was Novruzali Mamedov, no relative of Khilal. He was jailed in 2008 for 10 years on charges of spying for Iran and died of illness in prison in 2010.

Khilal Mamedov was one of the authors of a popular Youtube song "Who are you? Come on, goodbye?" that went viral in Russia, becoming popular among opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic of about nine million people sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, is ruled by strongman Ilham Aliyev, who is often criticised by international rights groups for curbing public dissent.

The government says Azerbaijanis enjoys full freedom of speech. (Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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