The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety is extremely concerned about the physical attacks on and harassment of “Azadlig” Newspaper correspondent Agil Khalil.
Khalil was beaten on 22 February 2008 while trying to investigate the cutting down of trees in “Zeytun Baglari” (Olive Gardens) in Baku, stabbed in the chest on 13 March 2008, and just today became the target of a nationwide black P.R. campaign. Today, at approximately 6 p.m., Azerbaijan’s state TV channel AZTV began playing footage in which three people claim that Khalil is a homosexual. Shortly after this Lider and Space also began showing the same footage, which was provided to them by the Chief Prosecutor’s Office.
IRFS notes that this turn in Khalil’s case is not completely unexpected. During an emergency press conference conducted in IRFS’ office on Friday, “Azadlig” Newspaper Director Azer Ahmedov announced that on Thursday investigators looking into the beating and stabbing of Agil Khalil traveled to Kurdemir, a region in central Azerbaijan, and interrogated Khalil and his mother until 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. During the interrogation, Khalil was shown a video of a male named “Sergei,” who claimed to be Khalil’s former lover, and told that he had three options. Ahmedov said these options were 1) to claim that one of his co-workers from “Azadlig” Newspaper stabbed him, 2) to claim that his homosexual lover, as depicted in the video, stabbed him or 3) …. Ahmedov did not wish to reveal this option. The journalist was reportedly told that if he did not agree, the compromising and, according to Khalil, bogus interview regarding homosexual relations would be broadcast on TV.
The footage shown on AZTV today depicts Sergei, who claims to have stabbed Khalil on 13 March out of jealousy, and a driver who says that he transported Sergei to the place outside the Appellate Court where Khalil was stabbed on 13 March. The driver claims that as he drove Sergei past the court, Sergei called Khalil over to vehicle. Khalil got inside and an argument broke out in the backseat between the two, during which Sergei stabbed Khalil.
First and foremost, IRFS is enormously concerned about the safety and wellbeing of Agil Khalil and all employees of Azadlig Newspaper. IRFS calls on local and international law enforcement agencies to take stringent measures to ensure the safety of Khalil and his colleagues and family, including measures against a new wave harassment which, taking into consideration that homosexuality is not widely accepted in Azerbaijan, could occur as a result of the footage shown on TV today.
Second, IRFS urges local law enforcements to conduct thorough independent investigations into the two separate attacks on Khalil. IRFS recommends that international organizations and allies of Azerbaijan offer Azerbaijan’s law enforcement agencies provide assistance in solving these cases, much like they did with the murder of “Monitor” Journal Chief Editor Elmar Huseynov in 2005. This could act as a preventive measure, to prevent a repeat of the events of 2005 this year.
IRFS emphasizes that irregardless of what precipitated the 13 March stabbing, the fact remains the same that on 22 February 2008 two men who have been identified from photographic evidence of the attack as National Security Ministry Colonel Akif Chodarov and Dagbeyi Allahveridyev, the brother of “Zeytun Baglari” Department’s Chief, beat Khalil and interfered with the journalist’s professional work, and these people need to be prosecuted to furthest extent of the law.
IRFS notes that damaging the reputations of dissidents by claming they are homosexual, use drugs, are from some undesirable ethnicity, and so on, is nothing new in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Therefore the validity of the claims made in today’s footage can in no way be assured. Azer Ahmedov told the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety today that Khalil vehemently denies that he is homosexual or has ever been involved in a homosexual relationship. The two of them assess this as direct pressure on Khalil and “Azadlig” Newspaper. IRFS suspects this could be part of a campaign that is ultimately intended to permanently silence and close “Azadlig” Newspaper, one of a very few independent newspapers left in Azerbaijan.
IRFS recalls to local and international community that press freedom in Azerbaijan is in a horrible state, and interventions are urgently needed. Khalil’s case is just one example of the countless ways through which journalists and media institutions in Azerbaijan are oppressed. At present there are four wrongfully imprisoned journalists in Azerbaijan; Sakit Zahidov, Eynulla Fatullayev, Ganimet Zahid, and Mushfig Huseynov. Journalists receive death threats, are beaten, and even murdered, but no one is held responsible for these incidents. Financial means are also used to stifle the opposition and independent press. In light of this, IRFS calls on Azerbaijan’s government to immediately cease its oppression of freedom of the press and to fulfill its obligations in the areas of human rights and freedom of the press. IRFS calls on the international community to demand that Azerbaijan fulfill its obligations in the areas of human rights and freedom of the press, and, in the event that this is not done, to enact real, tangible sanctions against Azerbaijan’s government.