INSTITUTE FOR REPORTERS’ FREEDOM AND SAFETY STATEMENT

March 14th, 2008
The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety is shocked and extremely alarmed by the stabbing of “Azadlig” Newspaper correspondent Agil Khalil.

This incident occurred yesterday, March 13, at 7:50 p.m. as Khalil was walking outside by “Azerbayjan Publishing House,” where “Azadlig” Newspaper’s editorial office is located.


Khalil, who was accosted by four people – two from the front and two from behind, sustained one stab wound in the chest. Doctors at Musa Nagiyev First Aid Hospital told IRFS that the knife just missed Khalil’s heart. Khalil underwent emergency surgery yesterday evening to close the stab wound, and is currently being kept in the hospital’s intensive case unit.

IRFS notes that Khalil has been in the news a lot recently, as he was also the victim of another attack on 22 February 2008. On that day, Khalil was beaten by two people, a 45-50 year-old male and 50-55 year-old male, in “Zeytun Baglari” (Olive Gardens) while he was trying to report on the cutting down of trees. The men grabbed Khalil's press ID and never returned it, and also tried to take the journalist's photo-camera. Khalil told IRFS that in the altercation his finger was broken and he also sustained brusing. The two attackers also strangled Khalil with the cord to his camera, and when the journalist fell to the ground, the men kicked him. Khalil has been very aggressively seeking the institution of criminal case on this incident. IRFS also notes that the attack on Khalil appears to be yet another episode in the unwavering campaign of harassment and intimidation against “Azadlig” Newspaper – a publication extremely critical of Azerbaijan’s incumbent government (see Addendum below).

IRFS interprets yesterday’s incident as an attempted murder, and calls for measures to be immediately taken to ensure Khalil’s safety, and the safety of all staff members of “Azadlig” Newspaper. IRFS also strongly encourages all journalists to take measures to ensure their own personal safety. Such measures could include not traveling alone at night and telling people at all times where they are going, when they expect to return and a contact number at which they can be reached. IRFS anticipates that pressure, harassment, provocation and attacks against the independent and opposition press will only increase at the 2008 presidential elections draw nearer.

IRFS calls on Azerbaijan’s government and law enforcement agencies to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into the stabbing attack on journalist Agil Khalil. In particular IRFS notes that the State Road Police has video cameras in lamp posts near the scene of the attack, and footage from these cameras should be used to help solve this case. The people responsible for this attack must be found, and the first place law enforcement agencies should look is with the people responsible for 22 February 2008 attack on Khalil. These people can be seen on IRFS’ website is secretly recorded footage of this attack that one witness filmed using a mobile telephone (www.irfs.az or at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=422fu6Xn6P0).

IRFS calls on the international community to demand that Azerbaijan’s government find those who are responsible for this vicious attack, and to insist that these people be prosecuted to furthest extent of the law. IRFS also calls on the international community to demand that Azerbaijan put an end to the impunity for people behind attacks on journalists and fulfill its obligations in the areas of freedom of expression and human rights.  

ADDENDUM: THE CAMPAIGN OF HARASSMENT AND INTIMIDATION AGAINST “AZADLIG” NEWSPAPER

IRFS notes that the attack on Khalil appears to be yet another episode in the unwavering campaign of harassment and intimidation against “Azadlig” Newspaper. On 7 March 2008 “Azadlig” Newspaper’s Chief Editor Ganimat Zahid was imprisoned for four years for charges of hooliganism and infliction of bodily harm, which stem from a case IRFS and many other local and international observers believe was part of a carefully planned, pre-meditated act of provocation. And another “Azadlig” journalist Sakit Zahidov has been in prison since 23 June 2006 on a spurious conviction of drug possession. In addition, “Azadlig” correspondent Fikret Huseynli was kidnapped and stabbed on 5 March 2006, and “Azadlig” correspondent Nijat Huseynov (who has since left the publication) was stabbed on 25 December 2006. Both of these cases remained unsolved. In February 2005, Ganimat Zahid was kidnapped by unknown people who beat him and photographed him naked and later disseminated these photos to the press and via internet, in an unabashed attempt to tarnish the editor and “Azadlig” Newspaper’s reputation.

In 2006 “Azadlig” Newspaper was evicted its own office building by the government. On 24 November 2006 “Azadlig” Newspaper, as well all other organizations located in the building (including IRFS) at 33 Khagani St. were forcefully evicted after Azerbaijan’s Economic Court #1 ruled that the property was not properly privatized and “Azadlig” Newspaper owed back rent. The publication was originally given the building while the Popular Front Party, which “Azadlig” Newspaper was original affiliated with, was in power for “free and unlimited use” through a decree adopted by Baku's Mayor on 8 October 1992. At the same time, after the “Yeni Azerbayjan Party” came to power in 1993 the new government often thought of the building as hotbed of dissent, as it eventually came to house not just “Azadlig,” but also the Popular Front Party, Turan News Agency, Bizim Yol Newspaper, IRFS and other independent NGOs and organizations.

Another provocation affecting “Azadlig” occurred this past year occurred on 2 November 2007, when someone published an “Azadlig” Newspaper copycat, which had almost the exact same logo, but different content. At that time, G. Zahid told IRFS that the chief editor of the copycat newspaper was Adil Mahmudov, the brother of Agil Mahmudov. Agil Mahmudov formerly worked for "Radio Liberty" and used to provide information to Azadlig Newspaper. Mahmudov relationship with the "Azadlig" Newspaper was not bad, until Agil Mahmudov spoke out against the Popular Front Party on national TV. Zahid also noted that Agil Mahmudov is President Aliyev's relative. According to the information IRFS has, the 2 November edition of the copycat newspaper was the only edition published in 2007.
 
“Azadlig” Newspaper is also the victim of severe financial sanctions. The publication’s bank accounts have been frozen, and it owes over $200,000 in court ordered fines, as a result of countless libel and defamation lawsuits, mainly filed by high-ranking government officials and people working at their behest.

Azadlig Newspaper was Azerbaijan's first independent newspaper. The paper was founded by well-known journalist and public figure Najaf Najafov. The first edition of Azadlig Newspaper was published on 24 December 1989, and it was originally aligned with the Popular Front Party, but is now an independent newspaper. At one time “Azadlig” Newspaper had a circulation of 200,000, now however this figure has dwindled down to only 7,500.