PARIS (AP) — Two French journalists accused by Azerbaijan's government of defamation for calling the country a "dictatorship" appeared for a hearing at a French court Tuesday, in an unusual case that activists call an effort to export censorship.
The case appears to be the first time a foreign government is pursuing journalists for defamation through a French court.
The hearing came as multiple European news organizations published a joint investigation Tuesday alleging vast money laundering and corruption by Azerbaijan — including allegedly paying off European politicians for favorable treatment.
In Tuesday's hearing in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, journalists Elise Lucet and Laurent Richard stood accused of defamation over a 2015 investigative report for France-2 television. Fines for defamation usually run up to 12,000 euros ($14,292.)
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders testified for the defense, as did an Azerbaijani journalist and Azerbaijani human rights activists living in exile.
Reporters Without Borders calls the lawsuit "an act of intimidation highlighting the Azerbaijani government's contempt for free speech. Not content with eradicating all pluralism at home, the regime is now targeting its critics abroad."
Oil-rich Azerbaijan's government has long faced criticism for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent. Its president Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father as long-time leader and secured sweeping new powers in a recent referendum.
Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency suspended activities last month after its bank accounts were frozen and its director arrested on tax evasion charges that rights groups call trumped-up. The last opposition newspaper, Azadliq, stopped publishing after its financial director was arrested last year. Access to some opposition websites is blocked.
Reporters Without Borders said at least 16 journalists, bloggers and media workers are currently in custody in Azerbaijan in connection with providing news.
Azerbaijan has worked to raise its profile in the West in recent years, with a lavish national exhibit at the foot of the Eiffel Tower last year, a high-profile advertising campaign at the World Economic Forum in Davos and other big events.
Aliyev has defended Azerbaijan's energy and security interests and has cast himself as a guarantor of stability for his small but wealthy country in a resource-rich region dominated by Russia.