Three years after editor’s murder, Azerbaijan journalists still abused

Azerbaijani journalist Elmar Hüseynov was murdered outside his home in the capital Baku, three years ago on Sunday. His case has become a symbol of the continuing human rights abuses faced by journalists in the country.

The outspoken editor-in-chief of Azeri opposition magazine Monitor, Hüseynov was shot seven times walking out of a lift on 2 March 2005. Thought to be the victim of a contract killing, Hüseynov’s death is the most serious case in a continuing series of assaults on opposition journalists.

His colleagues and international press freedom organizations ascribed his murder to the political content of the newspaper, which closed following his death.

In July 2006, a former Ministry of Internal Affairs official, charged with kidnapping and murder, admitted to Hüseynov’s murder while testifying at his own trial. He claimed that he carried out the killing on behalf of the former Minister of Economic Development, himself on trial for plotting the overthrow of the government. So far no one has been prosecuted for Hüseynov’s murder.

Marking the third anniversary of Hüseynov’s death, Amnesty International has called upon the Azerbaijani authorities to fulfil their international and domestic legal obligations to guarantee freedom of expression.

Azerbaijan continues to imprison journalists for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Despite the release of five journalists in December 2007, others remain behind bars in cases which human rights activists in the country consider politically motivated.

One of those still in prison is opposition newspaper editor Eynulla Fətullayev who, after years of harassment by the authorities, was tried twice in 2007. He was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment on charges of defamation, terrorism, incitement of ethnic hatred and tax evasion.

Eynulla Fətullayev worked on Monitor until it was closed. He then launched two popular opposition newspapers, Realny Azerbaydzhan (Real Azerbaijan) and Gündəlik Azərbaycan (Azerbaijan Daily). Both newspapers closed in May 2007 after a series of inspections of their premises by the authorities.

A series of vicious physical assaults against journalists by unknown assailants in 2006 and 2007 remain unpunished with little or no investigation. This climate of impunity has seen one assault in a busy street in broad daylight, the attackers having no fear of prosecution.

The situation has not been helped by the mixed messages sent by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. He said in April 2005, “it is unacceptable for government officials to attack journalists”. However, he told a meeting of police academy graduates in July 2007 that he had “banned sanctions” against police who had used violence against journalists in disturbances in October 2005. He went on to say that he would “always support the police” in such cases.

The lack of police investigation into cases of violence and harassment against journalists means that there are few suspects or arrests and that many crimes have so far gone unpunished.

The editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Bizim Yol (‘Our Way’) and Deputy Chairman of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan party, Bahəddin Həziyev, was abducted and beaten by unidentified men on 18 May 2006. The men were reported to have told him to stop writing “critical articles”.

The men then drove their car over his legs and left him on the shores of a lake outside Baku. Bizim Yol had alleged corruption in the oil and fishing industries and had named several high-ranking officials. Speaking to Amnesty International in July 2006, Baxaddin Xəziəv said that the police showed no interest in investigating the case and had recorded it as a case of minor injury rather than abduction and grievous bodily harm.

A journalist working for the Azadlıq newspaper, Nicat Hüseynov, was attacked by unknown men on 25 December 2006 as he left his home in Baku for work. He was thrown to the ground, beaten and attacked with a knife. Eyewitnesses called for help and the attackers fled in a waiting taxi.

He was later hospitalized with internal injuries, head injuries and a minor stab wound. Hüseynov had published articles on alleged corruption in high office and claimed to have received threatening phone calls before the attack. In January 2008, he was still suffering severe headaches and nosebleeds; no progress was reported in the investigation of his case.

A journalist for the Impuls newspaper, Süheylə Qəmbərova, was reported to have been beaten by court verdict executors on 28 September 2007 while researching an article on forced evictions. She was beaten alongside evicted residents who had asked to see the court orders approving the evictions. Her sister reported that Sühayle Qamberova was pushed to the floor and kicked in the head and body. She was later hospitalized.

“Unfortunately the Azerbaijani authorities continue to send mixed signals on freedom of expression”, said Laurence Broers, Amnesty International’s researcher on Azerbaijan. “On the one hand, the authorities condemn assaults on journalists while, on the other, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are failing to prosecute assaults against them.

“Other government officials have abused Azerbaijan’s defamation laws to silence critical reporting. To demonstrate their commitment to human rights principles, the Azerbaijani authorities should release prisoners of conscience, decriminalize defamation, ensure the thorough, independent and impartial investigation of assaults on journalists and bring perpetrators to justice.”