Opposition journalists at risk in Azerbaijan

AzerbaijanBaku - Agil Khalil, a 25-year-old reporter for the Azerbaijani opposition newspaper Azadliq, has made powerful enemies by investigating illegal construction in the country's booming capital Baku. Now he fears for his life.
First, state security agents beat him up on the street. Then, as he was returning home one night, he was assaulted by two men and sustained a deep stab wound near his heart. Azerbaijani judiciary officials, meanwhile, have begun a campaign to discredit Khalil in an attempt to silence him.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is alarmed by the plight of independent journalists in Azerbaijan. Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's representative on freedom in the media, said that Azerbaijani officials had made fabricated accusations against a number of journalists.

Eight critical journalists are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan, according to the Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. Haraszti has visited three of them.

"All three journalists are serving sentences based on made-up charges, such as terrorism, tax evasion, drug possession and hooliganism," he said.

International journalists' associations agree that the three are imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

On February 22, Khalil took photographs of workers illegally clearing land for a new building. With income gushing from the Transcaucasian nation's oil business, construction is springing up everywhere.

Two men approached the journalist and manhandled him for several minutes. He managed to escape when passers-by intervened. Khalil was offered hush money, but he refused to accept it. Shortly afterward, he said, he noticed that he was being followed. "There were also strange telephone calls: first silence, then threats. 'We'll cut off your head' was one of them," related Khalil, appearing nervous and insecure.

The stabbing took place on March 13. But state prosecutors have taken aim at Khalil, and not his attackers. During questioning, Khalil said, he was told to testify that his stab wound was either inflicted by himself or by another Azadliq reporter; otherwise, it would be reported that his homosexual lover had attacked him.

Khalil refused to comply, and on April 7 several television stations with close ties to the Azerbaijani government broadcast a half-hour report saying that jealousy among homosexuals had been behind the stabbing.

Haraszti urged the television stations not to let themselves be used as propaganda instruments any more. "I also call on law enforcement bodies to stop the wave of smear campaigns and bring to justice the perpetrators of violence against journalists like Agil Khalil," he said at the end of his visit to Baku.

Azerbaijan, which feels surrounded by powerful neighbours, has a partnership and cooperation agreement with the European Union. The country's officials regularly condemn Soviet-era repression. Nevertheless, a number of Azerbaijani journalists said that they expected harassment to increase in the run-up to this autumn's presidential elections.

Khalil, too, fears that the last chapter of his ordeal may not yet be written. "Without the attention of international organisations, I might already be dead," he said. (dpa)