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Azerbaijan: Opposition Journalist Says He Is Victim Of Vicious Smear Campaign

In the video, a man indentified as Sergei Strekalin (pictured) says he stabbed Xalil in a jealous rage (RFE/RL) An Azerbaijani journalist who was seriously injured in a knife attack says prosecutors investigating the assault have launched a smear campaign against him.

The developments come amid growing criticism of Baku's press-freedom record and concerns the country's October 2008 presidential elections will see the muzzling of all nonstate media.

Aqil Xalil, a 25-year-old correspondent with "Azadliq," Azerbaijan's largest opposition daily, was hospitalized in March after being stabbed in the chest. "Azadliq" editors say the stabbing -- the second time Xalil had been attacked in less a month -- was tied to his work investigating corruption in major land deals in Baku.

Prosecutors opened an investigation into the stabbing after Xalil's case raised an outcry from Western officials and press-protection groups. But instead of tracking down the people responsible for the attack, Xalil tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, investigators have focused their efforts on blackmailing him into offering a false confession.

"They gave me three options," Xalil says. "I could say that I was stabbed by one of my colleagues, or I could say that I stabbed myself. Otherwise, they said they would produce a video saying that I had been attacked by a man who was in a homosexual relationship with me, and then air it on state TV. So they said if I didn't want to be embarrassed, I would have to choose from one of these options. I was shocked."

Televised 'Evidence'

Xalil alleges prosecutors made the threats after forcing him to leave his parents' home in the Kurdamir region, where he was still recovering from his knife wound, and report for questioning in Baku on April 3. What ensued, says Xalil and his lawyer, was a daylong interrogation which included physical and psychological coercion and ran until 2 a.m.

During that time, Xalil says, an ethnic-Russian man was brought into the room with two men acting as witnesses. Prosecutors said the man, identified as Sergei Strekalin, claimed to be Xalil's homosexual lover, and confessed to having stabbed the journalist in a jealous rage.

Xalil speaks with reporters from his hospital bed after the stabbing (RFE/RL)

Xalil adamantly denies the allegations, and says he had never met Strekalin. Nevertheless, footage of the two men in the prosecutor's office was later presented as video evidence of the men's illicit relationship -- and broadcast repeatedly on all state-run television channels.

Despite purporting to identify Strekalin as Xalil's attacker, the true target of the video, which has headlined television news programs since April 7, appears to be Xalil himself.

Many of Strekalin's claims about his friendship with Xalil appear to be false. He alleges the two men met in the autumn of 2005; at that time, however, Xalil had been enlisted for military service and was not living in Baku. Strekalin speaks of offering cigarettes to Xalil, who does not smoke. Moreover, Strekalin speaks no Azeri, while Xalil speaks no Russian.

The video also includes "testimony" from two additional men who claim to have had sexual relations with Xalil. Although the footage is peppered with images of the journalist and references to "Azadliq," no mention is made of Xalil's investigative reporting or the paper's allegations that the attack was tied to his work.

Shock Tactics

The video has caused a sensation in Azerbaijan, a traditional Muslim country where homosexuality is considered a taboo and deeply shameful subject. Xalil's lawyer, Elcin Sadigov, has complained that Azerbaijani law prohibits the public release of evidence in an unsolved case, and says he will press charges against the Prosecutor-General's Office for what he calls a blatant violation of privacy.

Elsa Vidal of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders press-rights group says the video is a blatant attempt to compromise Xalil for his reporting work.

"The means that are used to discredit one journalist -- to say that he's a homosexual -- are just shameful," she says. "There is no justification to use that kind of method. His credibility as a journalist is not affected by whether he is straight or a homosexual. We know that the journalist has been threatened and blackmailed. The real reason is not his purported homosexuality; the real reason is because he is a threat to the authorities."

It is not the first time that the specter of homosexuality has been raised by authorities in connection with a public controversy.

Ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, a number of state-run media outlets carried stories insinuating that a popular opposition candidate, Popular Front party head Ali Kerimli, was gay.

In 2000, John Elvis, a U.S. citizen who worked as a programs coordinator for the International Republican Institute, was killed in Baku. Authorities claimed at the time that his death was tied to a homosexual affair. The case has never been solved.

The Xalil video scandal comes as Azerbaijan prepares to enter a critical election season, with the dynastic incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, looking to secure a second term in October. Press watchdogs say authorities have intensified their crackdown against the nonstate media as the election nears.

Prime Target

Nowhere has the clampdown been more evident than at "Azadliq," which has been a target of the authorities' ire for years. The newspaper, an outlet for some of the most critical reporting on the ruling regime, was evicted from its offices in 2006; subsequently, it was fined more than $100,000 for technical violations.

Xalil's stabbing came less than a week after the editor of "Azadliq," Qanimat Zahid, was sentenced to four years in prison for "aggravated hooliganism" and assault and battery in connection with a 2007 incident in which he was accosted by a stranger.

Zahid's brother, Mirza Sakit, an "Azadliq" correspondent, is currently serving a three-year jail term on similar charges. He has been on a hunger strike for the past week.

Press defenders say the international community has failed to adequately censure Baku for its campaign against the media, saying many Western officials have turned a blind eye to free-speech violations in Azerbaijan because of the oil-rich Caspian nation's growing importance as an energy supplier.

In fact, authorities in Azerbaijan often appear to act with impunity. State TV first broadcast the Xalil video even as Miklos Haraszti, the special representative on press freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was visiting Baku for a trip that included visits with Xalil, Zahid, and Sakit.

In a press conference in Baku on April 9, Haraszti called on authorities to stop what he called the propaganda campaign against Xalil, saying he had complained to state prosecutors about the video.

"I'm calling on them to stop it on many counts," Haraszti said. "It's practically illegal -- or should be, in a country which conforms to the rule of law -- because it's a violation of personal rights. But equally important, for me at least, is that it's also unethical to deny the role the media should play in society by gleaning the facts. Instead, they're making the facts unavailable."

Azer Ahmedov, the technical director of "Azadliq," says the video campaign against Xalil appears to be the latest attempt to silence one of the last critical voices left in Azerbaijan.

"All of this shows that the government wants to destroy the 'Azadliq' newspaper once and for all, before the presidential elections, and to use the example of our paper to deny the people of Azerbaijan access to free speech," says Ahmedov. "The beating and stabbing of Aqil Xalil is an integral part of this plan."

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