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Azerbaijan: Press Worries Increase After Assault On Opposition Reporter

Fikret Huseynli was clubbed over the head and stabbed in the throat by unknown assailants (Turan) Unidentified attackers on March 5 kidnapped and brutally assaulted an investigative reporter in a suburb of Azerbaijan's capital Baku. The journalist, who works for the opposition "Azadliq" (Liberty) daily, was left for dead by his attackers, but survived the assault. Press freedom watchdog groups in Azerbaijan and abroad have condemned the attack, which took place at a time when nonstate media are being subject to constant pressure.

PRAGUE, March 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Photographs show Fikret Huseynli lying in bed, his head and throat bandaged.

He has since returned home, his life out of danger, despite sustaining cranial trauma and a knife wound to the throat. Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijiani Service, Huseynli described what he remembers of the attack.

"It was dark," Huseynli said. "One of [the attackers] wanted to slit my throat. I pushed his hand. The knife entered my throat, just under my chin. I started gasping. I heard someone saying: 'It looks like he's dying, he's already gasping.'"

'Attacked From Behind'

Qanimat Zahid is editor in chief of "Azadliq," Azerbaijan's oldest nongovernmental newspaper, where Huseynli works as an investigative reporter. Zahid fleshed out the details of the incident, telling RFE/RL the journalist was attacked on March 5 in Patamdar, a residential area located in Baku's southwestern outskirts.
The attack on Huseynli came almost exactly one year after the murder of Elmar Huseynov, another investigative journalist known for his criticism of the government.

"Around 10 p.m. [Huseynli] was suddenly attacked from behind. He was hit on the head and he lost consciousness. As far as he remembers, he was put in a white car and taken to another neighborhood," Zahid said. "They dragged him to a dark alley and then stabbed his throat with a knife. After he fully regained consciousness, he called another of our collaborators who took him to hospital. They put stitches in his wound and sent him back home."

Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry denies the account of the attack. A Ministry spokesman claimed Huseynli admitted his injuries were the result of an accidental fall.

But Huseynli says he believes no fewer than three men assaulted him.


Huseynli could not identify his attackers, and the purpose of the attack is unclear. But Huseynli's colleagues believe it is directly connected to his professional activities. Editor Zahid says the reporter was in Patamdar as part of an investigation on alleged corruption by government officials.

"We still don't know whether his aggressors wanted to kill him, or just send him a warning. It's difficult to say," Zahidov said. "[Huseynli] has always written about high-ranking government officials. Nearly all these officials have had villas built in [Patamdar]. He probably wanted to clarify who owned those villas, perhaps take pictures, and collect information [for an upcoming report]."

Condemnation From Opposition

Azerbaijan's main opposition parties have condemned the attack.

In a statement, the reformist wing of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (AXCP) said it held President Ilham Aliyev "personally responsible" for the assault on a journalist from a newspaper that is openly critical of the government.

Another opposition party, Musavat, described the attack as "yet another attempt at muzzling freedom of expression."

Azerbaijan's Press Council (Azerbaycan Metbuat Surasi), a nongovernmental organization that monitors press freedom and mediates conflicts between the government and the media, has called upon Prosecutor-General Zakir Qaralov to see that the perpetrators of the attack are brought to justice.
'The main reason why these kind of incidents repeat themselves, in the most violent forms possible, is that their perpetrators, as a rule, remain unpunished.'

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontieres) media watchdog group -- which last year ranked Azerbaijan 141st out of 167 countries in terms of press freedom -- has expressed outrage at what it describes as "the brutality of the methods used to intimidate opposition journalists" in the Caspian Sea nation.

RSF noted in a statement this was not the first time "Azadliq" has comes under attack. A year ago, Zahid and the daily's technical manager, Azer Ahmedov, were abducted and beaten up by unknown assailants who reportedly cautioned them against publishing articles critical of President Aliyev.

RSF also said Huseynli had received several phone threats before being physically assaulted.

Press Freedoms Dwindling

Arif Aliyev chairs Yeni Nasil, or New Generation, one of Azerbaijan's three professional journalist associations. He tells RFE/RL the attack against Huseynli is yet another indication that press freedom is deteriorating in the country.

"To be honest, we're tired of commenting on these kinds of incidents. The saddest thing is that we never see any serious reaction from the government, or any other official bodies," Aliyev said. "Unfortunately, the system that exists to protect the interests of the media is rather weak. It is fractious and its structures are rather weak, which makes the absence of reaction from the authorities even more oppressive. The main reason why these kind of incidents repeat themselves, in the most violent forms possible, is that their perpetrators, as a rule, remain unpunished."

The attack on Huseynli came almost exactly one year after the murder of Elmar Huseynov, another investigative journalist known for his criticism of the government.

Huseynov, the founder and editor of the "Monitor" opposition weekly, was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building on March 2, 2005. President Aliyev at the time described the murder as a "provocation against the state" and pledged to bring those responsible to justice. But no progress has been made in the investigation.

Friends and relatives of the deceased accuse Azerbaijani authorities of obstructing justice and claim high-ranking government officials ordered Huseynov's assassination.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists last week said it was "very disheartening" to see that Huseynov's murderers remain at large and called upon the government to renew its investigation into the case.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service correspondent Ilqar Rasul contributed to this report from Baku.)

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