U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse strongly condemned the stabbing of Azerbaijani journalist Agil Khalil. Mr. Khalil, a reporter with the daily newspaper Azadliq, was assaulted by two unidentified thugs on March 13th. It is the second physical attack he has suffered in a month.
Mr. Khalil was investigating possible land deal corruption in Baku. Ambassador Derse visited Mr. Khalil in his hospital room. She says the violence is intended to intimidate the press in Azerbaijan:
“This terrible attack and other violent attacks against journalists have created a climate of fear.”
The assault on Mr. Khalil comes less than a week after the editor of Azadliq, Ganimat Zahidov, was convicted of so-called “aggravated hooliganism” and sentenced to four years in prison. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom monitoring group, said it believes the charges against Mr. Zahidov were contrived “with the sole aim of silencing an opposition journalist.” Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the sentence as a “travesty of justice” and called for the editor’s immediate release.
In its latest human rights report, the U.S. State Department said that the media freedom environment in Azerbaijan “significantly deteriorated” during 2007. The report found that “a number of journalists who criticized government officials in the course of their work were subjected to criminal prosecution and/or civil lawsuits, some resulting in prison sentences and large fines. Journalists were also subject to harassment, threats, and acts of physical violence that appeared to be connected to their criticism of the government or specific public officials.”
The report also noted other human rights abuses by Azerbaijan authorities, including torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, “particularly of individuals considered by the government to be political opponents,” harsh prison conditions, and restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and religion.
U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Jonathan Farrar said “for civil society and an independent media, the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are oxygen.” A free press cannot operate where journalists work in fear.