In Azerbaijan, five men have been jailed for up to 13 years in the beating death of a journalist who had criticized a national soccer star.
Rasim Aliyev, 30, died in a hospital in Baku on August 9, 2015, following an attack the previous day.
The Baku Court of Serious Crimes on April 1 found the five men guilty of grievous bodily harm causing death and sentenced Elshan Ismayilov to 13 years, Arif Aliyev to 12 1/2 years, Camal Mammadov to 11 years, and Samir Mustafayev and Kanan Madatov each to nine years in jail.
Aliyev said while in hospital that he had been attacked by supporters of Cavid Huseynov, a Qabala FK and Azerbaijan national team player, in retaliation for criticizing Huseynov on Facebook.
Aliyev had called for Huseynov to be barred from European competition over the way he behaved when his team beat Cypriot club Apollon in Cyprus on August 6.
Huseynov waved a Turkish flag after the game, and when asked by a Greek journalist to explain his behavior made a hand gesture that could be interpreted as rude.
Aliyev wrote that he did not want "someone this amoral, impertinent, and unable to control himself to represent me on European soccer fields."
Aliyev said he later received two calls from someone claiming to be Huseynov's cousin. In the first, the man yelled and swore at him on the phone, Aliyev said. The man then called again, apologized for his earlier phone call, and said the two should discuss the situation over tea.
Aliyev said he agreed to meet the man but was attacked from behind as he got out of his car to greet him.
Surveillance footage showed Aliyev being assaulted by a group of men, knocked to the ground. and kicked repeatedly.
Huseynov has been charged with not reporting a crime and faces a separate trial.
The player, who denies any involvement in the attack, faces up to three years in jail if found guilty.
Aliyev’s father, Mammadali, expressed satisfaction with the April 1 verdicts.
“All of them are criminals and they killed my son on purpose,” he said. “They planned the attack before meeting my son and they killed him.”
But relatives of the five called the sentences unjust and said they would appeal the verdicts.
The men said they had not planned the attack against Aliyev and that his death was the result of negligence by hospital doctors.
Aliyev was a well-known independent journalist who had previously worked for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, one of Azerbaijan's leading media freedom organizations until it was forced to shut down last year after its bank account was frozen, its office raided, and its director, Emin Huseynov, reportedly harassed.
Since then, Aliyev -- who was not related to President Ilham Aliyev -- had been working as a freelance journalist.
Aliyev had faced previous attacks over his work. In 2013, he was beaten by police while covering a protest march in Baku. He also routinely received threats.
Independent and opposition journalists in Azerbaijan have said the beating death of Aliyev shows there is a widespread sense that journalists who criticize the government can be attacked without risk of punishment.
"Everyone thinks that journalists can be treated in the way that [the ruling establishment] does," investigative journalist Sahvalad Cobanoglu said at Aliyev's funeral in the village of Mehdiabad, near Baku, in August.
"When people see that police beat journalists and remain unpunished, they consider it possible to use force against the press," Chobanoglu added.
President Aliyev’s aide for public and political affairs, Ali Hasanov, said previously that the president was deeply concerned about the beating death of Aliyev and "will personally supervise the investigation and [ensure] that the criminals will face the full force of the law.”
International rights groups, the United States, and the European Union routinely criticize Azerbaijan's poor record on human rights and freedom of speech under President Aliyev, who critics say has cracked down on the independent media since he succeeded his long-ruling father in 2003.