Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Award-Winning Azeri Reporter Badly Injured in Attack

Idrak Abbasov placed in intensive care after assault while filming house demolition.
By Samira Ahmedbeyli
  • Idrak Abbasov in Baku’s main hospital. (Photo: IRFS)
    Idrak Abbasov in Baku’s main hospital. (Photo: IRFS)
  • Idrak Abbasov (right) receiving an award for his courageous journalism last month. (Photo: Index On Censorship)
    Idrak Abbasov (right) receiving an award for his courageous journalism last month. (Photo: Index On Censorship)

An award-winning Azerbaijani journalist is in hospital in Baku suffering head injuries when he was severely beaten while filming workers attempting to demolish homes in a long-running land dispute.

The April 18 attack on Idrak Abbasov came just three weeks after he received a prestigious award for his journalism at an Index on Censorship ceremony in London.

Abbasov, who reports for the Ayna and Zerkalo newspaper and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, as well as working as an IWPR trainer and contributor, was beaten after residents of Sulutepe, just outside Baku, blocked a major road in protest against the demolition.

It was the latest round in an ongoing campaign to remove homes from land which the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, SOCAR, says belongs to it. In previous incidents, local homeowners say they have been assaulted by security guards accompanying the demolition teams.

“But this time they were particularly fierce,” Gunay Musayeva, a reporter for the Yeni Musavat newspaper, said. “They beat all the residents of the area, and did not stand on ceremony even with journalists. I was filming oil company workers beating a woman, when just a metre-and-a-half away from me, they knocked Idrak to the ground and started hitting him with sticks and kicking him.”

She continued, “When I ran to him, one of the workers grabbed me from behind by my hair and punched me right in the face. Then others came and took my camera away.”

Roman Abbasov, one of Idrak’s brothers, said the workers spotted Abbasov filming them.

“They took the camera, threw him to the ground and started kicking him. He was covered in blood, his head smashed up, and one eye closed over,” he said. “My brother Adalat and I threw ourselves upon Idrak to cover him. Then they started beating us,” he said.

Other journalists who heard about the attack rushed to the scene, among them Esmira Javadova, who reports for Radio Liberty.

“The taxi I was travelling in together with Galib, a cameraman for IRFS [Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety], was brought to a halt by SOCAR buses blocking the road,” she said. “Workers came out of the bus and started to hitting the car with sticks, and smashed the windscreen. They forcibly hauled Galib out of the car and started taking him off somewhere. At the same time, they were shouting every swearword imaginable at us, demanding that we leave.”

Abbasov and other who had been injured were taken to the Baku’s main hospital, accompanied by a group of journalists.

“We spoke to the doctors, and they said Idrak had damage to his skull and brain and was now in intensive care,” Seymur Kazimov, a close friend of Abbasov, said.

Hospital doctors told IWPR that Abbasov's brother Adalat was also in serious condition with head injuries and broken ribs. It is not clear how long they will require treatment.

A spokesman for SOCAR, Nizamaddin Guliyev, said he knew nothing about the clash but promised to look into it.

“I heard about this incident from a journalist. I was in a meeting. I will look into the matter and give you an answer,” he said.

Orkhan Mansurzade, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s interior ministry, said an investigation was already under way.

Media rights activists said the assault on Abbasov came within a wider context of recent official statements equating criticism of the country with support for Azerbaijan’s enemy Armenia, in other words treason.

“If the president makes a speech saying that many journalists are defending the interests of Armenia, then lower-ranking officials are going to take their lead from that and take tougher action against journalists,” Emin Huseynov, director of IRFS in Azerbaijan, said. “I believe restrictions on the press and on freedom of speech come from the very top of government.”

On March 28, Abbasov won the prestigious Guardian prize for journalism at the Index on Censorship awards ceremony in London. Judges citing the work he had done to expose attacks on private property, and the violence he had suffered in the course of his work. (See Azeri Journalist Honoured for Courage.)

This is the second time in recent months that Abbasov has been targeted. Several of his family members were hospitalised last year in an assault on their home, which is located in Sulutepe but is not subject to a demolition order. (For more, see Azerbaijani Journalist Under Pressure.)

Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR reporter in Azerbaijan