Last Tuesday was exactly five years since the threats hanging over the head of Azerbaijan’s popular investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov were finally carried out. The 38-year-old Huseynov, founder and chief editor of the weekly journal Monitor, was shot seven times with a silenced pistol in the stairwell of his apartment in capital Baku.
Enquiries into the death of the famous journalist have been condemned as vague and half-hearted — with neither the hit man nor those behind the killing ever brought to trial. The investigation remains unproductive five years after the tragedy, so few Azerbaijanis believe the case will ever be solved. Huseynov’s colleagues and human rights watchdogs say the death was politically motivated and had been contracted to silence his work. The assassination was a decisive slap in the face to an already curtailed media.
Huseynov was the most prominent and outspoken among the few Azerbaijani journalists who dared to write investigative articles. He revealed embedded corruption, lawlessness and power abuse, often involving high-ranking members of the government and close associates of the president.
Monitor stood out from much of the mainstream Azerbaijan media, which continues to remain under total state control. Husneyov also founded the Bakinskiy Bulvar and Bakinskie Vedomosty newspapers, which were known for critical reporting and hard-hitting commentary. Few journalists in the Caucuses are willing to cover politically sensitive topics but Huseynov produced numerous investigative articles at great personal risk, receiving death threats and heavy fines.
The Azerbaijani authorities constantly harassed Huseynov. He faced scores of politicised lawsuits — that could result in imprisonment and / or hefty libel fines — dozens of threats and bribes, all aimed at stopping his work. On many occasions, the authorities attempted to close down businesses that printed Monitor and confiscated copies of the journal from newsstands. The government repeatedly charged him with defaming the Azerbaijani population, insulting the honour and dignity of government officials, and spreading libellous information.
But this intimidations and harassments did not discourage Huseynov. In one of his interviews, he likened his way of journalism to “guerrilla fighting”. He never shied away from personal risks. He was courageous and tough on the government’s record on human rights abuses.
The assassination of Elmar Huseynov on 2 March 2005 led to international demands for an honest investigation to bring the killers to justice. Then Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, said, “I am shocked by the brutal murder of Elmar Huseynov, which has all the hallmarks of a contract killing and I condemn it in strongest terms”.
The Azerbaijani authorities were quick to deny that the government was connected to this vicious crime. President Ilham Aliyev called the murder a “black spot” on the country’s international image. He assured the family, colleagues and public at large that justice would be done. The death was designated as “terror act” and the investigation mandate was later transferred from the Office of Prosecutor General to the Ministry of the National Security (MNS). Although two ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia — Tahir Khubanov and Teymuraz Aliyev — were declared to be the prime suspects, their photos and information on their alleged roles are still classified. Georgia refuses to extradite the two men back to Azerbaijan.
Today, the official investigation remains stalled. With the killers at large and no clear evidence of who actually ordered the death, Elmar’s widow Rushana speculates that someone from the government ordered the assassination of her husband. When she published her suspicions she received death threats. Rushana, with her young son, is now a political migrant in Norway.
Azerbaijan continues to record a downtrend trajectory in international freedom indexes, with Reporters Sans Frontiers ranking Azerbaijan 146th out of 175 countries. The state-orchestrated media crackdown ensured that Azerbaijan lags well behind the other two states in Southern Caucasus – Georgia and Armenia. Amnesty International said the opposition journalists in Azerbaijan are “increasingly living under the threat of politically motivated arrests, physical assault and even death”.
The authorities expanded a crackdown on media in early 2009 by banning Azeri language service of the Radio Liberty, Voice of America and BBC radios in local frequencies. These radio outlets were the only stations offering a range of political views, dissenting voices and alternative information to the Azerbaijan society. At present, Eynulla Fatullayev and Ganimat Zahid, chief editors of country’s two prominent opposition papers are kept behind the bars on politically-motivated charges. The arrest of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, two well-known youth activists and bloggers, has further limited the space for free expression. Their jailing sent a chilling message to those who use social media and are critical of the government. [Mili and Hajizade are on the shortlist for Index’s on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2010]
The government’s targeting of critics and its failure to solve the murder of Elmar Huseynov shows how far the country is from being a democracy with a working independent judiciary and real political will. At stake is not only the declining media freedom, but also the lives of Azerbaijan’s determined journalists.