Letters   |   Azerbaijan

CPJ urges Azerbaijan to investigate assaults

June 3, 2008

Zakir Qaralov
Prosecutor General of Azerbaijani Republic
7, Nigar Rafibeyli
Baku, AZ1001
Azerbaijan

Via facsimile: + 994 (12) 493 0335

Dear Mr. Qaralov,

The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly protests the failure of Azerbaijani prosecutors to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the brazen assaults against Azadlyg reporter Agil Khalil. In the last three months, Khalil has been beaten, stabbed, and pushed onto train tracks. He has also escaped a kidnapping attempt. Yet despite abundant evidence as to who committed the crimes, there has been no progress in these cases.

If anything, prosecutors have made a concerted effort to impede the investigation: They have falsified information, ignored evidence, and smeared the embattled reporter in state-sponsored media. Furthermore, Khalil was prevented from traveling abroad after the attacks on him.

CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova recently traveled to Azerbaijan, where she visited local media outlets and met with independent journalists, including Khalil, whom she interviewed at length. She also met with Vugar Aliyev and Arastun Mehtiyev at the Department for Public-Political Issues, where she called on them to work toward the decriminalization of defamation and the release of imprisoned journalists. CPJ submitted an official request for prison visit to Azerbaijani penitentiary system authorities, but there was no reply.

We urge you now to use your authority to intervene in the seriously flawed investigation of the attacks on Khalil. It is outrageous that Khalil is being treated like a perpetrator, rather than a victim, of a crime.

On May 21, local press ran a shocking statement from your office to explain why Khalil's request for criminal prosecution was rejected: It said that Khalil was never actually beaten in February, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Prosecutors have also claimed that Khalil falsified evidence.

On February 22, two men later identified in the local press as Dagbeyi Allahverdiyev and Akif Chovdarov--both National Security Ministry officers--approached Khalil while he was taking pictures in the Baku neighborhood known as the Olive Gardens. The reporter said the men beat him, took his press ID, broke his finger, and tried to strangle him with his own camera. Khalil reported the incident to Baku police the same day and gave them photographs of the two men as well as video footage of the beating a passerby recorded on a mobile phone. Witnesses also gave testimonies.

According to your office's May 21 statement, Allahverdiyev and Chovdarov said they did not want to be photographed and tried to take Khalil's camera. They also claim that Khalil intentionally fell on his back and started screaming as if being beaten. Allahverdiyev and Chovdarov said they wanted to help Khalil on his feet and did not beat him, according to prosecutors. In the statement, prosecutors also said that a medical examination of Khalil conducted on March 18--more than three weeks after the attack--"did not reveal any objective signs of physical injuries."

CPJ spoke to Khalil and his lawyers, who said that neither the video footage nor the pictures he took that day have been considered as evidence. Khalil also told the local press that both assailants and prosecutors offered him money in exchange for his pictures and video. He declined the offers.

Subsequent attempts on Khalil's life had not been duly investigated either.

On March 13, four unidentified men encircled Khalil as he was leaving Azadlyg's office; one stabbed him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Khalil later told the Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety that he recognized one of the assailants as having followed him for several days. Azadlyg Editor Azer Akhmedov reported the attack to the authorities. Yet after that, Khalil became the subject of a smear campaign.

On April 7, Azerbaijani state broadcaster AZTV aired interviews with three suspects in the stabbing, one of whom confessed to having stabbed Khalil. Alleged assailant Sergey Strekalin claimed he stabbed Khalil several times with a pocketknife out of jealousy because the two men had previously had an affair. Strekalin and his two male friends, who also appeared on the video, insisted they had known Khalil for several years and had had sexual contact with the journalist. Prosecutors say they believe they have solved the case. A court hearing has been scheduled for June 5.

CPJ spoke to Khalil and his lawyers last week about the investigation. They confirmed our concern--that, in light of its glaring discrepancies, this entire investigation has not been carried out in good faith. Khalil and his lawyer have highlighted the following inconsistencies:

  • The alleged attacker Strekalin claims he stabbed Khalil several times, whereas Khalil told CPJ he was hospitalized with a single knife wound in his chest.
  • Strekalin asserts that at their first meeting he offered Khalil a cigarette, which the journalist accepted and smoked. Khalil told CPJ he has never smoked in his life.
  • Strekalin and his friends claim in the AZTV interview that they have been exchanging text messages with Khalil for a long time. Khalil told CPJ this is not true since he only bought his first cell phone fairly recently.

Khalil also told CPJ that he escaped two other attempts on his life: On May 7, unidentified men tried to push him onto the tracks at Baku's "28 May" train station; later that same day, two young men tried to kidnap him near his house in Baku. Fearing for his safety, Khalil tried to leave the country. However, on May 10, he learned he was barred from leaving Azerbaijan on what he said he was told was an order from your office. Neither Khalil nor his lawyers were given an explanation of the ban when they visited a local prosecutor's office on May 14.

As an organization that defends journalists' right to report without fear of reprisal, we are deeply concerned that the Azerbaijani authorities who are bound to protect Khalil's safety are in fact endangering him further. By allowing false claims and accusations to be made throughout the investigation process and by deliberately ignoring available evidence, Azerbaijani prosecutors are failing to protect Khalil. His life continues to be in danger. We respectfully remind you that as a member of international organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan has pledged to protect human rights, with freedom of speech and expression among them. 

We call for your direct and concerted intervention into the investigation. Those responsible for assaulting Khalil must be brought to justice. Specifically, we strongly urge that you reopen an investigation into the February 22 beating and seek National Security Ministry cooperation in discovering its officers' role in the attack on Khalil; we urge you to restart a thorough and transparent probe into the March 13 stabbing attack and dismiss Strekalin's flawed testimony. We call on you to seek out and review video recordings from Baku transportation authorities to establish the May 7 train incident. We also urge you to lift travel restrictions on Khalil.

Given that there has been evidence of malfeasance in this ongoing investigation, we call on you to personally oversee it from here forward, and to seek cooperation from other state agencies and civil society groups.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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