Azerbaijan: Writer and editor served heavy sentences for ‘inciting religious hatred’

***UPDATE: On 3 July 2007, an appeal court in the Azeri capital, Baku, upheld the below sentences, in violation of international standards guaranteeing freedom of expression.***

English PEN is shocked by the heavy sentences served against writer Rafiq Tagi, and editor Samir Sadagatoglu, for an article comparing European and Islamic traditions. Both are accused of ‘inciting religious hatred’ and have been convicted to three and four years in prison respectively.

The sentences against Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagotoglu were served on 4 May 2007 by the Sabail district court in the capital, Baku, following a trial that was marked by death threats and violence by Islamic radicals who were present in the court. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, based in Moscow, reports that at the final hearing on 26 April, radical activists who were present inside the courtroom, heckled and demanded that the two be sentenced to death. A further forty activists outside the building threatened and abused the defendants and journalists covering the trial. The judge is said to have not responded to these incidents.

Tagi, the author of the article that led to the trial, told the court that he considers himself innocent of the charges. Both men intend to appeal the sentence.


On 1 November 2006, a small Azerbaijan newspaper, Sanat, published an article entitled ‘Europe and Us’ comparing European and Islamic traditions in which it was suggested that Islam had hindered progress in the development of Muslim states such as Azerbaijan. This article led to outrage among Muslim conservative groups and the subsequent arrest of the newspaper’s editor Samir Sadagatoglu, and the author of the article, Rafiq Tagi (also referred to as Taghizad). On 15 November, the Nasimi District Court in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, charged the two men under Article 283 of the Criminal Code with inciting national, racial and religious enmity and ordered to be held in pre-trial detention for up to two months. 

However this action did little to appease those who objected to the article and, on 17 November 2006, conservative Muslims based in Nadaran, a town situated north of the capital Baku, held protests during which death threats were made against Sadagatoglu, Tagi and their families.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, citing an interview in a local web site, Tagi denies that the article had slandered or insulted Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.

As the days passed, the protests spread not only to other areas of Azerbaijan, but also into neighbouring Iran, where protestors gathered outside the Azerbaijan embassy in Teheran. By late November, the situation for the journalists deteriorated further when the Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, based in Iran, issued a fatwa (religious decree) ordering that the two men be executed. Another Iranian cleric based in the Tebriz area of Iran where there is a significant Azeri population, also reportedly offered his house as a reward for the death of the two men. However not all support the fatwa, and there have been counter protests by Muslim groups in Azerbaijan stating Sadagatoglu and Tagi have the right to express their views and voicing concern about what they consider to be undue influence of the more conservative members of the religious community over the country’s affairs.

The Azerbaijan Prosecutor General’s office has also made clear its opposition to the death threats in a press statement which said ‘We live in a constitutional state and all issues should be solved by law’, adding that the death threats are ‘unacceptable’, and that police protection was being provided to the two men’s families.

According to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, Tagi, who is also a cardiologist, is not unused to controversy. His views are often controversial, and he has written biting articles against Azerbaijan’s leading poet, Samed Vurgun, the chairman of the Azerbaijan Writers Union and others.

PEN considers the detention  of Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu  to be in direct violation of their right to freedom of expression and is calling for their release. PEN is appalled by calls for the execution of the two men and the threats made against their families. We welcome that the Azerbaijan Prosecutor General’s office has made clear its opposition to the calls for the two men’s death, and that protection is being provided to the families.

Please send appeals:

  •  Protesting the sentences served against Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu in violation of their right to freedom of expression;

  • Expressing alarm at the death threats made against the two men and welcoming the Azerbaijan Prosecutor General’s statement that clearly indicates opposition to such calls;

  • Pointing out that the article, while containing comments that some may find uncomfortable, falls within the bounds of legitimate comment and that they are therefore held in violation of their right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by international human rights instruments to which Azerbaijan is a signatory;

  • Calling for their release and for continued protection for their families and themselves against attack.



President Ilham Aliyev

Office of the President of the Azerbaijan Republic

19 Istiqlaliyyat Street

Baku AZ1066, Azerbaijan

Fax: 00 994 12 492 0625

Minister of Internal Affairs

Lt.-Gen. Ramil Usubov

Ministry of Internal Affairs

Husu Hajiyev Street 7,

Baku 370005, Azerbaijan

Fax: 00 994 12 92 45 90

It may be most effective to send the above appeals via the Azerbaijan embassy in London:

His Excellency Mr Rafael Ibrahimov

4 Kensington Court

London W8 5DL

Fax: 020 7937 1783

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