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Azerbaijan: Investigative Journalist Hospitalized After Stabbing

Agil Khalil in a hospital after being attacked (RFE/RL) A reporter with Azerbaijan's largest opposition newspaper has been hospitalized after he was attacked and stabbed by two assailants.

The attack is the latest incident appearing to target members of the nonstate media in Azerbaijan, and comes just days after the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report noted "significant deterioration" in the country's media freedom environment.

Agil Khalil, a 25-year-old correspondent with the “Azadliq” daily, sustained a deep chest wound after being stabbed with a knife on the evening of March 13. Azer Ahmedov, the newspaper's technical director, said Khalil had been seriously injured, but was not in danger of dying.

The newspaper claims the attack is tied to Khalil's work investigating possible corruption in land deals in Baku.

In late February, Khalil was beaten by two men while attempting to photograph the destruction of a public olive grove, which was allegedly being cleared at the behest of a local businessman looking to use the land to build a private villa.

Ahmedov says the correspondent began receiving threats after filing a complaint with local police.

"For the past 10-15 days, Agil had been receiving phone calls from people threatening him or attempting to blackmail him," Ahmedov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "He was also being followed. He told us, after he was attacked, that he recognized one of the assailants."

Sadiq Gezalov, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan's Ministry of Internal Affairs, says a criminal case has been opened into the attack.

'Heinous Crime'

Anne Derse, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, visited Khalil in his hospital room, saying she was "shocked and appalled at this heinous crime."

"This terrible attack and other violent attacks against journalists have created a climate of fear in an apparent effort to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan," Derse said.

Azerbaijan, which is fast accumulating regional influence and energy wealth, has seen a steady crackdown on independent media in recent years. Numerous opposition papers have been closed and journalists have been beaten or jailed for incidents they say are related to their work.

Azerbaijani authorities have denied any connection to the attack on Khalil, and allege the case is being used as part of an antigovernment smear campaign.

"The stabbing of a journalist is another provocation against Azerbaijan and was intended to create a myth regarding the problems of freedom of speech and press in the country," lawmaker Ali Ahmadov, executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, told the Trend news agency.

Khalil's stabbing comes less than a week after “Azadliq” editor Ganimat Zahidov was sentenced by a Baku court to four years in prison for "aggravated hooliganism" and "assault and battery" in connection with an incident in 2007 in which he was accosted by a stranger. (Zahidov's brother, an “Azadliq” correspondent, is currently serving a three-year jail term on similar charges.)

The press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized Zahidov's sentence as "shocking and extremely severe," adding: "We have every reason to suspect that the incident was contrived from the outset with the sole aim of silencing an opposition journalist."

RSF said the verdict "says a lot about how authorities plan to approach the presidential election" in October, when incumbent Ilham Aliyev will seek a second term.

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SUBSCRIBE For weekly news and in-depth analysis on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia's North Caucasus by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."