Two prominent journalists were viciously assaulted in unsolved attacks, and the 2005 murder of another top reporter was wrapped in questions. President Ilham Aliyev and his allies used the courts as a hammer against the independent media, filing criminal defamation lawsuits, lodging spurious drug charges, and imprisoning critical journalists. Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, the second most powerful government official, filed five separate criminal defamation lawsuits against journalists with the Baku-based Milli Yol, 24 Saat, and Azadlyg newspapers.
The investigation into the May 2005 murder of Elmar Huseynov, founder and editor of the opposition newsmagazine Monitor, produced a surprising accusation–along with continued skepticism about the government’s probe. Haji Mammadov, a former Interior Ministry official being prosecuted on unrelated charges, stunned Azerbaijanis in August by proclaiming in court that he had planned Huseynov’s murder on the orders of former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev. Mammadov was being tried on charges of leading a criminal gang that carried out a series of murders and kidnappings over 11 years. Farkhad Aliyev, already jailed on unrelated charges of planning a coup, denied the accusation, according to local press reports. Neither Mammadov nor Aliyev were immediately charged.
Journalists in Azerbaijan reacted skeptically to the news, saying there was little evidence to support Mammadov’s courtroom revelation. They also noted that Huseynov had written critical but often favorable articles about the former economic minister’s work. The new confession contradicted the government’s initial theory in the case. In 2005, investigators accused two Georgian citizens of shooting Huseynov in the stairwell of his apartment building, but authorities in Georgia cited a lack of evidence and refused to extradite the pair, according to CPJ research.
The twisting but unresolved Huseynov investigation set the backdrop for a violent year that saw savage attacks on two journalists: Fikret Huseynli (Huseinli), an investigative reporter for the Baku-based opposition daily Azadlyg (Liberty), and Bakhaddin Khaziyev, editor-in-chief of the Baku-based opposition daily Bizim Yol.
Huseynli, who was investigating alleged government corruption, was kidnapped on March 5 and his throat slashed by unidentified assailants in the Patamdar area, a southwestern suburb of Baku, according to news reports. The journalist had received several prior death threats by phone, warning him to discontinue his reporting. Huseynli survived the attack and returned to work. On May 19, five men abducted Khaziyev on the outskirts of Baku, beat him over several hours, and drove over his legs with a car, according to news reports. Khaziyev survived but suffered serious leg injuries.
No charges were filed in either case, prompting protests from journalists and from Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Azerbaijan Press Council pointed to an underlying problem. “The main reason these kinds of incidents repeat themselves, in the most violent forms possible, is that their perpetrators, as a rule, remain unpunished,” the council said in a letter to Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov.
In October, the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council told private radio executives that they must discontinue programming from the BBC and two U.S. government-funded outlets, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Council head Nushiravan Maharramli said his agency had determined that domestic radio licenses barred the broadcast of foreign-prepared content, the New York-based news Web site EurasiaNet reported. Regulators said they would set aside other frequencies for foreign broadcasts, but details were scarce.
After threatening the independent television station ANS for more than a year, the government shut the broadcaster for two weeks in late 2006. Authorities sealed off ANS facilities and confiscated its equipment on November 26, saying that the station had violated media laws and failed to pay fines.
Since President Aliyev and his Yeni Azerbaijan Party swept to victory in a November 2004 vote–which international observers said was neither free nor fair–top government officials have used the legal system to quash investigative reporting. Led by Interior Minister Usubov, public officials filed at least a dozen politicized lawsuits against critical journalists, according to local press reports.
Shakhin Agabeili, editor-in-chief of Milli Yol, was targeted in rapid-fire fashion in August. He was arrested on August 9 after Usubov complained that a Milli Yol story wrongly accused the minister of having ties to the disgraced Mammadov. The next morning, Agabeili was sentenced to a year in prison in a separate defamation lawsuit filed by Parliamentary Vice Speaker Arif Ragimzade. Usubov eventually withdrew his own complaint when Agabeili apologized following days of interrogation, according to local press reports. Agabeili was freed on a presidential amnesty declared on October 23, but the editor told CPJ that he was not allowed to leave the country.
Usubov also filed a criminal libel lawsuit against Eynulla Fatullayev, editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan’s highest circulation independent weekly Realny Azerbaijan, in response to articles in July and August that alleged ties between Usubov and Mammadov. On September 26, Fatullayev was convicted and sentenced to a two-year suspended prison term, ordered to publish a retraction, and directed to pay 10,000 manats in damages to Usubov. Fatullayev closed Realny Azerbaijan on October 3 without explanation, according to international press reports.
In August, Usubov filed criminal defamation charges against the Baku-based opposition weekly 24 Saat and its editor-in-chief, Fikret Faramazoglu, in response to July articles that alleged the interior minister knew about Mammadov’s crimes. At his hearing, Faramazoglu stood by his story. “It is impossible that the minister knew nothing about the criminal group that operated in the ministry for 10 years,” the independent Turan news agency quoted him as saying. Faramazoglu was convicted on both charges and sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term.
The Mammadov case generated many legal complaints, but a story that touched on sensitive ethnic issues also inspired a prominent lawsuit. Samir Adygozalov, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Boyuk Millat, was convicted of criminal libel in February and sentenced to a year in prison for a 2005 article that claimed Abel Magarramov, Baku State University rector and a parliament member, was an ethnic Armenian and had used university funds to support the Armenian diaspora. Ascribing Armenian heritage to someone is considered a slur in Azerbaijan, where relations with neighboring Armenia are very poor due to the decade-long Armenian occupation of the western province of Nagorno-Karabakh. Adygozalov was released in the October 23 amnesty, according to CPJ sources.
Authorities were also accused of setting up a prominent reporter on drug charges. On June 23, police arrested Sakit Zakhidov, a satirist for the Baku-based opposition daily Azadlyg, and charged him with carrying 10 grams of heroin. Zakhidov was sentenced on October 4 to three years in prison for drug possession.
Zakhidov denied the charge and said that the drugs were planted by police during his arrest. Journalists in Azerbaijan condemned the prosecution, noting Zakhidov’s arrest came only three days after Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party publicly called for “an end” to Zakhidov’s work. Akhmedov said at a June 20 media freedom panel, “No government official or member of parliament has avoided his slanders. Someone should put an end to it,” EurasiaNet reported.
In November, a Baku court said the State Property Committee could evict the opposition newspaper Azadlyg from its premises. The Turan news agency, Bizim Yol newspaper, and the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, which had sublet space, were also targeted with eviction.