Remembering a slain journalist in Azerbaijan
Today marks 11 years since the murder of famous journalist Elmar Huseynov, who was a critical voice of the authoritarian Azerbaijan government, writing on injustice, rampant corruption, state repression and many other human rights abuses.
Elmar’s critical commentaries and investigative articles in his “Monitor” magazine had earned him numerous threats and many bitter enemies within the ruling regime in Azerbaijan, where the political climate and human rights records has dramatically worsened in past decade.
The 38-year old Elmar, who was the chief editor of famed weekly “Monitor”, was shot seven times by a silencer pistol and killed in the stairwells of his apartment in capital Baku on 2 March 2005.
The brutal murder shocked the international community, and the enquiries into the assassination have been broadly condemned. However, thus far neither the hit man not those behind the killing have been brought to justice.
The murder was clearly politically motivated and had been contracted to silence Elmar’s critical and investigative journalism.
With almost everyone sure of the political nature of the killing, there is less confidence about the prospects for a conclusive
investigation and real breakthrough in near future. The investigation remains frozen or totally unproductive 11 years after
Media’s ‘guerilla fighter’
The intimidations and harassments against Elmar were well beyond discouraging him. In one of his interviews, he had likened his way of journalism to a ‘guerrilla fighting’. He never shied away from personal risks, as he was courageous, investigative and tough on the injustice and human rights abuses of Azeri government.
Elmar’s Russian-speaking “Monitor” journal, which had earned the respect of intellectuals and diplomats, stood out from much of the mainstream Azerbaijan media. Elmar produced numerous investigative articles at great personal risks, whether receiving death threats or being subjected to heavy fines. He had also founded “Bakinskiy Bulvar” and “Bakinskie Vedomosty” newspapers, which were known for critical reporting and hard-hitting commentary.
With their long record of stifling freedom of expression, the Azeri authorities had constantly harassed Elmar, who faced scores of politicized lawsuits and pressures, ranging from imprisonment to hefty libel fines and from dozens of threats to luring offers aimed at stopping his unflinching investigative reporting that sought to expose corrupt officials. In many occasions, authorities attempted to close down the printing companies, where “Monitor” was published, and confiscate copies of the journal from state and private newsstands. He had repeatedly been charged by the authorities with defaming Azerbaijani population, insulting the honor and dignity of government officials, and spreading libelous information.
The assassination of Elmar on 2 March 2005 led to international outpourings of sorrow, criticism and demands for an honest investigation to bring the killers before the justice.
The Azeri authorities was quick to dispel any doubts that the government was standing behind or somehow connected to this vicious crime. President Aliyev called the murder a “black spot” on the country’s international image and as having a “negative impact on democratic development of Azerbaijan”. President ordered the speedy resolution of the tragic act and assured the family, colleagues and the public at large that justice would be done. Since then, in past 11 years, Aliyev has said nothing about the murder and the frozen investigation.
Because the death case was designated as “terror act”, the mandate for investigation was transferred from the Office of the Prosecutor General to the Ministry of National Security (MNS). Though two ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia – Tahir Khubanov and Teymuraz Aliyev - were declared as the prime suspects of the crime, their photos and information on their alleged roles still remain as the “investigation’s secret”. Even though some authorities claim that Georgia refused to extradite these suspects to Azerbaijan for prosecution, some Georgian officials have said they have never received such a request from Azerbaijan’s side.
Today, the official investigation is almost stopped, while the suspected brains behind the assassination enjoy impunity. One thing known for sure is that the investigating bodies – be it Ministry of National Security or other law enforcement agencies - have done absolutely nothing to disclose the crime.
With the killers at large and no clear evidence of who actually ordered the death, Elmar’s widow, Rushana Huseynova speculated that someone from the government did the order of the assassination of her husband. When she published her suspicions that authorities were involved in murder, she grew fearful following the alleged death threats. Rushana, with her little son, is now a political migrant in Norway and still struggles to find the truth behind the murder of her husband.
Many think there will be no fair trial under the current government, as nothing has changed since Elmar was murdered almost a decade years ago. And it has literally been a matter of life and death in the case of outspoken journalists like Elmar.
Colonel Chovdarov’s arrest: Hope for disclosure?
The journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who was imprisoned on politically motivated charges between 2007 and 2011, had made a number of sensational statements concerning the reasons for his arrest. Prior to his arrest, Fatullayev - as a former employee of “Monitor” - was investigating the murder of his colleague Elmar Huseynov. Fatullayev claimed that the main reason for his arrest was his investigations and the naming of the man behind the murder. He had pointed the finger at Colonel Akif Chovdarov, the infamous, brutal high-ranking official of the Ministry of National Security, the predecessor of Soviet KGB.
In one of his trials, journalist Fatullayev had made the following statement:
"On October 5, 2006 I met in Tbilisi with those whom the Azerbaijani authorities announced were wanted by Interpol for Elmar’s murder. Instead of arresting those people, the Ministry of National Security (MNS) started persecuting and pressuring me and other members of the Public Commission involved in the investigation, demanding that we stop our activity, and not disseminate information about the suspects Teymuraz Aliyev and Sergo Darviiishev. … Others stopped investigating, but I continued, and came to the conclusion that all suspicions led to one person – the MNS officer Akif Chovdarov."
Fatullayev had sent letters to Deputy National Security Minister Hilal Asadov and the Attorney General, informing them about colonel Chovdarov’s involvement into the assassination. Instead of investigating the claim, the Azeri authorities filed a lawsuit and arrested Fatullayev, who was tortured and interrogated by the representatives of the MNS leadership, including Chovdarov himself. They reportedly told Fatullayev that Elmar’s murder was a state secret, and conducting a private investigation was illegal. According to Fatullayev, the authorities promised to release Fatullayev if he agreed to cooperate with the MNS and refute his statement, but Fatullayev refused to cooperate with them.
In November 2015, colonel Chovdarov was arrested, but for different serious charges and not related to his connection in Elmar’s murder. It remains to be seen if the investigators will also dare to inquire Chovdarov in his involvement into the journalist’s murder.
After Elmar: Critical media battling to survive
The tragic story of Elmar well exemplifies the contemporary common experience of many journalists in Azerbaijan, where this assassination was a decisive blow to the already curtailed freedom of media. The truth is so feared by the Azerbaijani authorities that the impunity had long become a policy on violence and threat against government critics. As one local journalist describes, “You have to work as though each day at work could be your last day in freedom.”
Since Elmar’s murder, there have been hundreds of attacks against critical journalists, including the murder of Rafig Tagi in 2011 and Rasim Aliyev in 2015. Many outspoken Azerbaijani journalists have been imprisoned, threatened or forced to leave the country for voicing critical opinions.
The silencing of dissident media voices has occurred simultaneously with a widespread crackdown of civil society, including the NGOs operating in the field of human rights. The country has continued to move far away from a free press, while the government has applied a full range of methods – regulatory, financial, judicial – to reinforce its media dominance and sweep away the dissent.
The government’s failure to stop hunting the critics and to solve the murder of Elmar Huseynov shows how far the country is from being a democracy with a working independent judiciary and real political will. At stake is not only the declining media freedom, but also the lives of Azerbaijan’s determined journalists, some of whom are lingering in Azerbaijani jails.
Despite the pessimism lurching among the courageous journalist in Azerbaijan, for them Elmar remains the essence of what a professional and honest journalist should be. Elmar’s courageous journalism is a role model for Azerbaijan’s independent media community, as he was investigating and reporting the power abuse and corruption that he believed were ruining and blocking the country’s development towards a normal state of democracy.
Elmar much believed in the possibility of a democratic Azerbaijan. With his principles, courage and dedication, Elmar set an example to us all.