I have known renowned Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev since 1994, when public structures of Armenia and Azerbaijan were just beginning to establish a dialogue. Back then, that active young man's bright charisma was evident. But at that time one could hardly think that Eynulla would become the severest critic of Aliyev regime, as in 1994 he was still wearing a badge with Heydar Aliyev's image.
The transformation of a journalist's views must never be explained by the lack of principles. It was the allegiance to principles that became a reason for the Baku rulers to put him in prison for 8.5 years. One of the reasons was the journalist investigation conducted by Fatullayev proving that during the well known events in Khojaly the Armenian forces left a humanitarian corridor for the refugees. That fact allowed ordinary Azerbaijanis to take a fresh look at the official propaganda's version of "slaughter committed by the Armenians." Under a strong pressure from international agencies and Western states, in late May, Eynulla Fatullayev was released from prison early. Two weeks ago, I happened to meet him in Strasbourg. It would be strange not to ask him for an interview.
– First of all, I want to welcome you in freedom. I hope you will not appear there again, being released lately under the international community's pressure. Could you please recall what charges were brought against you?
– As the Council of Europe's Secretary General said, the repressive measures the Aliyev administration took against me were unprecedented. I have been convicted five times under different articles. Defense Minister Safar Abiyev filed the first case on charges of defamation. But actually I had only presented in my publication the true state of affairs in the agency he heads. I was sentenced to one year in prison. The second charge was related to Haji Mammadov's cause célèbre. A large organized criminal group, acting within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was exposed in Azerbaijan in 2006. For ten years, that gang committed ordered political murders and kidnappings… Even the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs was arrested in that case. My journalist investigation enabled to establish that the criminal group had political support and actually the head of the gang was Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov. I wrote about it openly. I was sentenced to two years in prison. The next cause célèbre, widely known in Armenia, was related to my trip to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2005. It was my personal initiative. I serve my readers who wonder what is actually taking place in Karabakh. Incidentally, at that time, in 2005, the Azerbaijani authorities were quite tolerant towards my trip and only after several years, they noticed corpus delicti in my actions. I think my trip was very successful. I published a series called Karabakh Diary.
– At that time, you also had an interview with Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasyan…
– I had several interviews with representatives of Karabakh's political elite.
– What was the charge related to? Why can't one have an interview with the Karabakh leader? You did not call him "mister president," did you?
– The authorities claimed that with my publications I insulted the honor and dignity of Azerbaijani people. But I only word for word conveyed the words of my interlocutors, including Azerbaijani refugees from Khojaly. For some reason, their words were presented as my personal viewpoint. The fact is, first of all, that during the attack on Khojaly, the Armenians, nevertheless, left a humanitarian corridor so that the civilians could leave.
The court didn't care for the arguments as the Azerbaijani judiciary had been ordered by the authorities to deprive me of internal public support, presenting me as a traitor who propagandized the Armenian version of Khojaly events. I was absolutely groundlessly branded as a traitor. Thus, they sought to discredit me and the then popular outlet Real Azerbaijan, which I headed and which remained almost the last free platform.
– And how many years did you get for the truth about Khojaly?
– Two years and a half. I was convoyed to prison and after 20 days, new charges were brought. This time, against the newspaper I headed. All security, defense and law enforcement agencies were involved in the special operation. The only thing missing was tanks. They also paid me back for another publication titled The Aliyevs Go to War. At that time, intensive negotiations were underway between President Aliyev and representatives of the American administration. The matter concerned Azerbaijan's involvement in the anti-Iranian coalition in case of military operations. Later WikiLeaks fully confirmed that my information was correct. My analytical article was presented as a "terror threat to the Azerbaijani government." The "Khojaly case" in principle was to deprive me of internal support, while the "Iranian case" was to create an illusion in the Americans' eyes that I had some links with Tehran and deprive me of international support. I got eight more years for that. But that was not all. Some time later, they brought a new charge against me – I was charged with inflaming social and interethnic discord. That is, on the one hand, I was a kind of a cosmopolitan pacifist and, on the other hand, I was a nationalist. It is not clear, however, how these two principles could go together in one man. The problem was only that in one of my articles I criticized the president's cadre policy based on the principle of clannishness. I wondered whether it was acceptable to appoint solely persons from Nakhichevan to high posts. That gave rise to a new wave of repressions and I got three more years in prison. A month later, they remembered that I, as it turned out, evaded taxes. The fiscal audit conducted in the newspaper revealed that I underpaid taxes – in the amount of half a million dollars. Could you explain how one can have such a high turnover from a newspaper, with the taxes alone making half a million dollars? This is nonsense. Thus, I got a total of 15.5 years in prison. However, they joined the judgements together and consequently I was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison and sent to a prison with most severe conditions.
– You have since been in the spotlight of all human rights organizations and international agencies…
– All influential international agencies and governments of a number of Western states joined the campaign for my release and acquittal. The European Court of Human Rights promptly reacted to my letter and accepted the case for consideration. In September 2008, the ECHR filed a complaint on my case to the Azerbaijani government. And it was at that time when another charge was brought against me. Drugs with exotic properties were found in my belongings. It was heroin and cocaine. I immediately demanded an independent expert examination, but they rejected me for some reason. After it, on April 22, 2010, the ECHR passed a verdict on my case, acknowledging the violation of my rights and demanding that I be released without delay. The court stated that on none of the charges my actions contained corpus delicti. The Azerbaijani government refused to carry out the court's decision.
– Thus, the Azerbaijani government unintentionally contributed to the strengthening of the Armenian arguments regarding what happened in Khojaly. As the ECHR, acknowledging the charges on "Khojaly case" that had been brought against you, admitted indirectly that the facts you stated, regarding the humanitarian corridor for civilians, correspond to reality. The ECHR agreed to the Armenian version of Khojaly events. It appears that Aliyev scored an own goal?
– The Azerbaijani authorities acted too stupidly. I have repeatedly said that this case would seriously damage Azerbaijan's international image. But the authorities were so consistent in their intention to isolate me that they even did not notice that they fail the country's interests.
– Eynulla, you sufficiently examined the circumstances of Khojaly events to form your own view about what had actually happened…
– To understand what actually happened, it takes only to look through the speeches delivered at the special session of Azerbaijani parliament on Khojaly events, held in 1996. Listen to what high-ranking representatives of ruling party Yeni Azerbaijan said. They literally voiced the Armenian version of those events.
– The Azerbaijani government openly disregarded all the decisions on your case passed by the ECHR. And you were released only after the Armenian president signed a decree to set free the representatives of radical opposition. Could it be supposed that if it weren't for the decree of Serzh Sargsyan, you would be in prison up to now?
– Of course, there is certain competition between Azerbaijan and Armenia in this issue. Aliyev realized that after the release of Armenian oppositionists, Azerbaijan was at a disadvantage before the international organizations. To justify their unpreparedness to follow democratic norms, Yerevan and Baku often appeal to the situation in the neighboring country.
When pressed by Strasbourg, Aliyev usually says, "And why don't you press Sargsyan? He also has political prisoners, doesn't he?" Ilham Aliyev realized that he could not reply this way anymore and Azerbaijan would face serious ordeals. He had nothing else to do but authorize my release.
– Regrettably, not everyone in Strasbourg was consistent in defending your rights. I know that you recently met with Council of Europe's Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland and thanked him for his efforts. At the same time, you turned down the invitation of PACE President Mevlut Cavusoglu who indirectly hindered justice in your case. What was the reason of such a behavior by the prominent representative of Turkish ruling elite?
– I am very thankful to Mr Jagland. He spoke publicly four times demanding that I be released. At the same time, Mr Cavusoglu, during his visits to Baku, never mentioned the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. For me personally, everything is clear regarding Cavusoglu.
The person holding the position of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is simply the lobbyist of the interests of Azerbaijan and the Baku administration. Everyone knows that. There are many proofs of it. He cooperates too closely with Aliyev's team and in return for the services provided by the Baku rulers he agrees to turn a blind eye to the absolute lawlessness in the country, violations of human rights and other similar manifestations.
– How could it happen that such a biased person appeared on such a high position in such a respectable international organization?
– I am myself perplexed. I can't understand how this could happen.
– Are the actions of Mr Cavusoglu, lobbying the interests of Azerbaijan, dictated by mercenary interest in Ilham Aliyev's progress, or is this a unique manifestation of patriotism and willingness to help the Turks' fraternal country?
– I think Mr Cavusoglu is doing disservice. It is a blow to friendly relations between Turks and Azerbaijanis.
By supporting the regime that consistently violates human rights, he impedes us, rather than helps. If he followed patriotic principles, as you say, rather than mercenary ones, he would be the first to show toughness to Ilham Aliyev's regime.
– I know that you are going to resume the publication of Real Azerbaijan newspaper. I wish you success in that undertaking.
May it be necessary to visit Stepanakert again and prepare a new series of impartial articles on the real state of affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh during your further activities as a journalist?
That would be very interesting. After my visit, there was no more first hand information from Karabakh, prepared by witnesses, in the Azerbaijani press. You know that the Azerbaijani government hinders Azerbaijani citizens from visiting Karabakh. Consequently, journalists fail to carry out their mission. Our readers wonder what takes place in your society. Therefore, I would definitely very much like to visit Karabakh and Yerevan again and prepare impartial materials. I realize, however, that my desire would again evoke a wave of accusations against me. I would again be called a traitor working for Armenian special services and carrying out their order. In the current situation, it seems to be difficult to carry out the visit. But I am going to work to that end.