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On the fifth anniversary of the murder of Azerbaijani journalist and writer Rafig Tagi, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) remains deeply concerned about ongoing violence against journalists in Azerbaijan, where impunity for such crimes is virtually guaranteed, and the right to freedom of expression is routinely violated.
“We are disheartened that five years after Rafig Tagi’s murder, justice has not been served”, said IRFS Director Emin Huseynov. “Rafig Tagi’s life represents the continuing struggle for free speech, and free and independent media. His death has become deeply symbolic, reminding the Azerbaijani media community of the courage needed to pursue this line of work, and the risks it entails”, said Huseynov.
Rafig Tagi was known for his opposition to political Islam as well as his criticism of the Azerbaijani authorities. He died in a Baku hospital days after being treated for the knife wounds he suffered on 19 November 2011, when he was stabbed seven times by an unknown assailant. The 61-year-old journalist appeared to be in recovery following surgery, but died four days later under suspicious circumstances. His death was initially attributed to choking; however the Ministry of Health later stated that the cause of death was peritonitis.
Prior to his death, Tagi had received death threats from Islamists in Azerbaijan and Iran. Despite the fact that in 2006, one of Iranian clerics placed a fatwa on Tagi, publicly calling for his death, the law enforcement agencies in Azerbaijan did not take any steps to provide protection.
IRFS emphasises that the investigation into Tagi’s murder was far from fair and objective. IRFS condemns the authorities for suspending the investigation in 2014. This, along with other circumstances surrounding his death, suggest political – not religious – motives behind his killing. IRFS’s conclusion that the Azerbaijani regime is behind the murder is based on, inter alia, the following:
• The Ministry of Transport has installed surveillance cameras all across the country. But the footage of the location where Tagi was assaulted was never presented, and the investigative agency did not review this material. When the team conducting independent investigation of Tagi’s case requested the camera recordings from the said location, they were told that the cameras had not been working on the day of the assault.
• The failure of the Prosecutor’s Office to respond to five separate enquiries lodged by IRFS researchers into the progress of the investigation highlights the lack of transparency in the official investigation process.
• Doctors checked on Tagi 10 minutes before he was found dead, and found nothing of concern. Tagi’s friends were concerned by lax security at the hospital given that Tagi had received death threats.
The Serious Crimes Investigation Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, which was in charge of the investigation, decided to suspend the proceedings on the criminal case on 8 January 2014. The appeals filed against this decision were rejected. On 20 November 2014, the late journalist’s lawyer submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, based on violations of Articles 2 (Right to life) , 6 (right to a fair trial) and 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Rafig Tagi’s case is part of a wider pattern: he is one of five journalists who have been murdered with impunity in Azerbaijan.
In August 2015, IRFS Chairman and journalist Rasim Aliyev died in a Baku hospital due to lack of adequate treatment after being brutally beaten the day before. Prior to his death, Rasim Aliyev had received threatening messages connected to a series of photos he posted online showing police brutality and social discontent – for instance, one of protesters carrying a banner calling on President Aliyev and his government to resign. Rasim Aliyev reported receiving a threatening message stating, “You will be punished for these photos”. He publicised the threat on 25 July 2015, and filed a complaint with the police, who took no action to protect him.
In August 2009, Talishi Sado newspaper Editor-in-Chief and Talish Cultural Centre head Novruzali Mammadov died while serving a 10-year jail sentence for alleged treason. Mammadov’s serious health problems were widely known. However, the authorities failed to provide him with the necessary medical care and kept him in prison, despite numerous international calls for his release on humanitarian grounds;
In March 2005, Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov was murdered in a well-organised attack that appeared to be a contract-style killing. After receiving a number of death threats, he was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building in Baku, where he died on the scene. More than 11 years later, the perpetrators of the murder have not been found yet.
Yeni Musavat newspaper photo reporter Alim Kazimli was brutally beaten at Narimanov District Police Department on 28 December 2004 when applying for an identity card. Kazimli died of a brain haemorrhage attributable to this attack on 19 June 2005. Although Abil Mammadov, the head of the passport office, was reprimanded for his failure to provide the necessary conditions to receive citizens and for his discourteous behaviour towards Kazimli, there was no investigation of the case.
Once again, we call upon the Azerbaijani government to uphold freedom of expression; to aggressively pursue those who commit acts of violence against journalists – including those responsible for the deaths of Rafig Tagi and four other journalists; and to end the culture of impunity. To this end, IRFS requests that the authorities take the following action:
• Initiate an independent, speedy and effective investigation and into the deaths of Alim Kazimli, Elmar Huseynov, Novruzali Mammadov, Rafig Tagi and Rasim Aliyev, resulting prosecution of those responsible;
• Carry out a full and transparent review of police procedures on protecting individuals who are likely to be targeted for what they say;
• Refrain from prosecuting journalists on the basis of what they publish.
IRFS further calls upon international organisations, in particular the UN, OSCE and Council of Europe, to increase pressure on the government of Azerbaijan to investigate the murders of journalists.