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Azerbaijan: Editor's Killing Sparks Accusations Of Political Motives

Elmar Huseinov (file photo) The editor in chief of an Azerbaijani opposition magazine has been shot dead in front of his home in Baku. Elmar Huseinov had repeatedly faced lawsuits from Azerbaijani officials for articles published in his magazine "Monitor." Rights groups are linking the killing to Huseinov's journalistic activities.

Prague, 3 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Elmar Huseinov, the editor of a highly outspoken opposition weekly magazine, was gunned down by an unknown assailant in cold blood in front of his home in Baku yesterday.

His magazine has been sharply critical of Azerbaijani authorities, particularly President Ilham Aliyev. The magazine has on several occasions been closed or fined by the courts.

Huseinov spoke in December about the lawsuits targeting "Monitor," accusing the authorities of harassing the publication for political purposes. "I seriously protested, because this is illegal," he said. "This is unambiguously a political order, because two days prior [to that], parliamentary speaker Murtuz Aleskerov in a speech asked the government to express its relation to 'Monitor' magazine and to take serious measures against it. Two days later, court bailiffs are seeking to deny us any profits. And this is simply a political action. What they want is to bankrupt 'Monitor.'"

Huseinov's slaying comes amid a broad government crackdown on the media and opposition activists that has followed flawed presidential elections held in October 2003, when Aliyev succeeded his father.

Rauf Arifoglu, deputy chairman of the Musavat opposition party and editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," was arrested after the election. In October 2004, Arifoglu was sentenced to five years in prison after a conviction for organizing antigovernment protests.

Alex Lupis, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told RFE/RL that he believes the killing was part of a campaign against Azerbaijan's independent media. "Unfortunately we have also seen a number of incidents over the past years that continue to indicate that the government is cracking down on independent and opposition journalists that criticize the government," Lupis said.
Analysts say "Monitor" has long angered Azerbaijan's ruling elite.

Lupis added that the Committee to Protect Journalists is calling on Western governments to take a stronger stand against such persecution.

Diana Orlova is the European coordinator at the International Press Institute in Vienna. She said the West's unwillingness to pressure Azerbaijan's political leaders is allowing them to continue applying pressure on the independent media. She said infringements on media freedom get much less attention in the West than in nearby Ukraine or Belarus, for instance.

"Definitely [there has been less attention devoted to this] than, for example [instances in] Ukraine or Belarus, where elections have recently taken place and a lot of pressure was put on the authorities about press freedom," Orlova said.

Orlova said that "Monitor" has long angered Azerbaijan's ruling elite. In February, military forces detained one of the magazine's journalists, Akrep Hasanov, and held him for five hours after he had exposed abuses and mismanagement in an Azerbaijani military unit.

The leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, Ali Kerimli, told RFE/RL yesterday in Baku that Azerbaijan's authorities should either find the killers or resign.

"Elmar [Huseinov] has been a victim of a state terror. Everyone should know that and should not be afraid to say that. We will either force them [the authorities] to bring the perpetrators to justice, or we will force them [the authorities] to resign," Kerimli said, and urged Azerbaijan's political parties and rights groups to turn Huseinov's funeral into a massive protest.

Meanwhile, senior officials appear eager to convince the public that they will do all they can to find and prosecute Huseinov's killer or killers.

Azerbaijani deputy prosecutor Remiz Rizaev told Reuters yesterday that he views the crime as a provocation against the state. "This is a horrible crime plotted against the state; it's provocation," he said. "We now have a special investigating team from the police, national security, and the prosecutor's office. This could have been a contract killing, and we will try to investigate this as quickly as possible and solve this crime."

In a joint statement issued today, Azerbaijan's Security and Interior ministries and Prosecutor-General's Office warned the opposition against using Huseinov's killing "to exacerbate the political situation and spread confrontation" and pledged to quickly solve the crime.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this story.)