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Azerbaijan: Embattled Journalist Blocked From Travel Abroad

Aqil Xalil (Turan) An Azerbaijani journalist who has been honored by Amnesty International says authorities have prevented him from taking a flight out of the country.

Aqil Xalil, a 25-year-old correspondent with "Azadliq," Azerbaijan's largest opposition daily, was shortlisted for Amnesty's Special Award for Human Rights Journalism Under Threat. The award, which was announced earlier this week, went to Yemeni newspaper editor Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani.

Xalil this year has suffered a series of attacks that he and fellow "Azadliq" employees say is connected to his work investigating claims of government corruption in major land deals in Baku.

"Statements from international organizations and embassies have been a great source of support for me," he tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, this award. In a word, I want to thank all my colleagues for the support I got from them."

Xalil was hospitalized in March after being stabbed in the chest. It was the second time he had been attacked in less than a month.

In April, the prosecutors who had been formally tasked with investigating the attack instead supplied television stations with footage presenting Xalil as a homosexual. The tapes, which were broadcast repeatedly on all state-run TV channels, were purportedly meant to identify Xalil's assailant. But Xalil and others say the footage was meant as a smear campaign.

Xalil says the campaign against him is part of a broader strategy to eliminate "Azadliq," which remains the most vocal opposition newspaper in the country.

"'Azadliq' is the only newspaper fighting the current regime in Azerbaijan and uncovering the negative sides of the regime," he says. "That's why the authorities want to stop this newspaper. The editor in chief, Qanimat Zahid, has been arrested; our satire writer, Mirza Sakit, has been arrested; Fikret Heseynli and Nijat Daglar, both from 'Azadliq,' have been harassed. And look what's happened to me. The goal is to shut down 'Azadliq,' because it's criticizing the government."

The government in Azerbaijan has come under repeated criticism from press-freedom advocates for its steady clampdown on the media. Numerous publications have been shut down or fined, and journalists jailed.

The crackdown comes as Azerbaijan prepares to enter a critical election season, with the dynastic incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, looking to win a second term as president in October.

Press watchdogs say authorities have intensified their attacks on the nonstate media as the election nears. Xalil says authorities are looking to "escalate the situation" to dangerous levels. But, he adds, that won't keep him from pursuing his work as a journalist.

"I will do whatever I used to do and say whatever I used to say, regardless of what they do," he says. "I will continue the fight."

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