The fatal beating of an Azerbaijani reporter may reflect a growing sense of impunity over attacks on the country's independent journalists.
Independent and opposition journalists in Azerbaijan say the beating death of reporter Rasim 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 Shahveled Chobanoglu said at Aliyev's funeral on August 9.
"It has [created the feeling] that independent and opposition journalists can be safely beaten. When people see that police beat journalists and remain unpunished, they consider it possible to use force against the press."
Aliyev's own statements before he died that it was simply his criticism of a soccer player, Cavid Huseynov, that led to his beating suggests that independent journalists are deemed easy victims today even by groups not previously associated with attacks upon them.
Investigators detained a cousin of Huseynov on August 10 and say others suspected of involvement in the beating will be arrested soon. In the attack, which took place in a commercial area under constant surveillance by security cameras, Aliyev was assaulted by a group of men, knocked to the ground, and kicked repeatedly for about 40 seconds.
Aliyev was a well-known independent journalist who had previously worked for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, one of Azerbaijan's leading media freedom organization 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 is not related to President Ilham Aliyev -- had been working as a freelance journalist.
Like many independent journalists, 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. He wrote on his Facebook page on July 25, well before the football match in Cyprus: "Dear friends, where do I need to complain if I am getting threats and being intimidated via social media networks? Please let me know."
But it is unlikely he ever imagined criticizing a player’s behavior after a soccer match could cost him his life.
Aliyev said in an interview with Meydan TV from his hospital bed shortly before he died that everything started when he criticized Huseynov over the way he behaved when his team, Qabala FK, beat the Cypriot club Apollon in Cyprus on August 6. Huseynov was asked by a journalist why he had waved a Turkish flag after the game and the player reportedly made a rude hand gesture in reply, saying Azerbaijan and Turkey were friendly countries.
Aliyev wrote on his Facebook page that he did not want "someone this amoral, impertinent, and unable to control himself to represent me on European soccer fields."
Aliyev also said that after his Facebook posting he received a call from someone claiming to be Huseynov's cousin, who yelled and swore at him on the phone.
Huseynov -- who also plays for the Azerbaijani national team -- later called Aliyev and told him he meant no offense to the Greek journalist but simply wanted to highlight the close Azerbaijani-Turkish relations.
The man who said he was Huseynov's cousin then called again, apologized for his earlier phone call, and said the two should discuss the situation over tea.
Aliyev eventually agreed to meet and drove to see the man and, when getting out of his car to greet him, was attacked from behind by his accomplices.
Huseynov's club, Qabala FK, has expressed regret over the incident and dropped the player from its first team until the case is cleared. Huseynov himself has made no public comment.
President Aliyev’s aide for public and political affairs, Ali Hasanov, announced on August 10 that the president is deeply concerned about the beating death of Aliyev and "will personally supervise the investigation and that the criminals will face the full force of the law.”
“The president of Azerbaijan rates this incident as a threat to the freedom of speech and information, free activity of the mass media in the country," he said.
However, those remarks are unlikely to put to rest the fears of independent journalists, activists, and opposition politicians regarding the possibility of future attacks upon them.
Speaking during Aliyev's burial in the village of Mehdiabad, near Baku, on August 9, prominent opposition figure Isa Gambar said it is "clear he died for freedom of speech."
"Regardless of who is behind this crime...it is clear that Rasim's death resulted from the regime generating chaos and creating opportunities to commit crimes against journalists," said Gambar, a leader of the largest opposition party, Musavat.
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.
Several human rights groups, including the Sport for Rights movement, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Index on Censorship, International Media Support, and PEN American Center, have called on the authorities in Azerbaijan to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the murder of Aliyev.
Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor who has reported extensively on the financial dealings of President Aliyev and his family, is currently on trial on charges she says are politically motivated.