Amid the coverage of civil-rights debates during this presidential election cycle in Azerbaijan, one key journalist’s voice is missing.
Thirty-eight-year-old Elmar Huseynov, editor-in-chief of Monitor magazine and one of the most critical journalists of President Ilham Aliyev’s policies, was shot and killed in front of his Baku apartment back in early March, 2005. The crime shocked Azerbaijanis, prompting a condemnation from President Aliyev, along with a promise for a rapid and thorough investigation.
More than eight years later, the murder remains unsolved, and the case continues to cast a shadow over Azerbaijan’s political process. Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based media watchdog Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), argues that that failure to bring closure to the murder case has created an atmosphere of impunity that has had a muzzling effect on journalists.
For many these days, especially opponents of Aliyev’s administration, Elmar Huseynov’s murder marks the beginning of a clampdown on media that is continuing right up to the present day. For others – namely authorities in Baku -- the killing, while unfortunate, has no particular bearing on Azerbaijan’s commitment to future democratic development.
Since Elmar Huseynov’s death, another journalist-writer, Rafig Taghi, has been killed, and more than 200 incidents of violence against journalists have been recorded, said Emin Huseynov, who is not related to the slain editor. Arrests of journalists also have continued. With 10 now in jail – the latest, pro-opposition journalist Parviz Hasimli, arrested on September 19 for the alleged illegal possession of weapons -- Azerbaijan now ranks among the world's top journalist-jailers, after Iran, Turkey, China, Eritrea and Vietnam, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Azerbaijan’s law-enforcement agencies claim that they have pinpointed the culprits for Elmar Huseynov’s death – allegedly, two Georgian citizens of ethnic Azeri origin, Teymuraz Aliyev and Tahir Hubanov – but say that they can do no more because the suspects are hiding abroad, in Georgia.
Citing a lack of evidence, Georgia has declined to extradite the two men to Azerbaijan.
But the Ministry of National Security, which is handling the investigation, maintains that “[s]ooner or later, [the suspects] will be arrested and convicted.” The ministry has never named a motive for the crime.
“We do not stop the operative crime-detection activities even for a minute and they are still continuing,” ministry spokesperson Arif Babayev told Mediaforum.az this March. Six petitions have been sent to Georgia’s General Prosecutor’s Office since 2005 for the extradition of Aliyev and Hubanov to Azerbaijan, he claimed.
Huseynov’s family and human rights defenders and journalists remain skeptical about the thoroughness of the official investigation. The government, they allege, is not interested in finding the killers. “It is not surprising that the crime was not successfully investigated during more than eight years,” Huseynov’s father, Sabir, commented to EurasiaNet.org. “This government committed it, and they are not going to arrest themselves.”
General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov has alleged that “forces interested in the destabilization of Azerbaijan on the eve of the 2005 parliamentary elections” committed the murder.
Public pressure on the Azerbaijani government to clear up the case, no matter the culprit, has dwindled in the face of other concerns. With a 22-day campaign for the October 9 presidential vote, time for airing complaints is scant. Public attention, meanwhile is focused on other issues, such as corruption among the ruling elite, an ineffective justice system and the unequal distribution of oil revenues.
Still, questions about the case linger on. Reasons for why Azerbaijani prosecutors maintain they have the evidence to book Teymuraz Aliyev and Tahir Hubanov, and, yet, Georgia insists that it has no grounds for extradition remain unclear. Georgian prosecutors last questioned the pair about the murder in 2007, but let them go for lack of evidence.
Some civil-rights activists allege that the lack of progress stems from “a deal” between the two governments, which are firm allies.
For Elmar Huseynov’s father, though, the reason lies elsewhere. “In fact, they have closed the case,” Sabir Huseynov said in reference to Azerbaijan’s law-enforcement agencies. “Nothing is being done. I applied to various places, but then understood that it does not make sense.”
An appeal to Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili via Azerbaijani media also fell flat, he added.
The opposition campaign of presidential candidate Jamil Hasanli has pledged to investigate Huseynov’s murder if he wins the presidential election. Hasanli’s chief rival, incumbent President Aliyev, has not commented on the Huseynov case since 2005, but has underlined that violence and disrespectful behavior toward journalists are “inadmissible.” In a July speech to mark the opening of a government-built residence for journalists, he proclaimed that “freedom of speech is fully ensured in Azerbaijan today.” Arguments to the contrary, he has said, can be attributed to “false information” and schemes to destabilize Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, every year on March 2, the date of Huseynov’s death, and on July 17, his birthday, a group of journalists and civil society activists visit his grave as a sign of support for the right to freedom of speech. IRFS’ Huseynov claims that requests to the Baku city government to build a monument to the slain journalist remain unanswered.
As the imprisonments of and attacks on journalists have increased, the group visiting Huseynov’s grave has become gradually smaller. Yet Sabir Huseynov’s hope for eventual justice for his son’s murderer lives on. “I ask God to let me live to this day,” he said.