The Persecution of Rafiq Tagi
In late April, the nation of Azerbaijan hosted a special meeting on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Entitled "The Role of Media in the Development of Tolerance and Mutual Understanding", the Jakarta Post described the conference as part of an "effort to curb growing trends of Islamophobia".
At the conference, held from April 26-27, numerous complaints were made about the alleged anti-Muslim bias of the Western media. Of course, little mention was made of the widespread anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in Muslim media outlets. At the same time, Azerbaijan's foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, described his country as a "land of tolerance".
On May 4th, just a few days after the conference delegates had departed from the "land of tolerance", Azerbaijan showed its commitment to acting against "bias against Islam" in the media. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has the details:
A district court in Baku today sentenced two journalists to jail terms for an article that was deemed to be critical of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
Correspondent Rafik Tagi received a three-year prison sentence, while his editor, Samir Sadagatoglu, received a four-year sentence.
According to RFE/RL, "(t)he scene inside the courtroom was chaotic, with Islamists chanting prayers in an attempt to prevent the lawyer representing Tagi and Sadagatoglu from addressing the court."
The BBC, Reporters Sans Frontieres, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have additional details on the verdict.
I have blogged about the case of Rafiq Tagi on a number of occasions. After Tagi wrote a November 2006 article critical of Islam's impact on his country's development, he and Sadaqatoglu have become victims not only of official persecution, but of an orchestrated campaign of incitement by Azeri Islamists backed by Iran. In fact, three Iranian clerics have issued fatwas calling for Tagi's murder.
Tagi and Sadaqatoglu are not the only journalists to be subjected to violence or imprisonment by Azerbaijan's authoritarian regime. On April 20th, newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for "defaming" and "insulting" Azeris. A journalist who testified on Fatullayev's behalf was attacked and beaten that same evening. According to the OSCE, Azerbaijan has imprisoned more journalists than any other member state. The situation has become so bad that the CPJ just named Azerbaijan one of its 10 worst "backsliders" on press freedom.
The case of Rafiq Tagi combines many of the elements that threaten intellectual freedom in the Muslim world. You have radical Islamist clerics issuing fatwas calling for the murder of those who express "blasphemous" opinions; a radical Islamist movement waging an organized campaign against the expression of views critical of Islam, as a means of both expanding their power and silencing moderate and reformist Muslims; and finally, a corrupt, brutal, authoritarian regime that censors the media and suppresses "anti-Islamic" viewpoints in a futile effort to appease the Islamists. These all too common conditions have led to the persecution of Tagi, Sadaqatoglu, and countless other freethinkers throughout the Islamic world.
It is incumbent on the US government, the OSCE, and all interested non-governmental organizations to do everything possible to free these two brave men.