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Azerbaijan: Rage at Editor's Murder

The murder of opposition journalist Elmar Husseinov may have wider political repercussions in Baku.

The apparent contract killing of prominent opposition editor Elmar Husseinov has shaken Azerbaijan ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this autumn.

The killer used a pistol with a silencer to fire four shots into 37-year-old Husseinov – who was editor of the weekly magazine Monitor - in the entrance to his apartment block on the evening of March 2, as he returned home from work.

The head of Baku’s main police station, Magerram Aliev, who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards, said the murder bore all the marks of a contract killing.

Monitor and its editor were well known at home and abroad for being the most outspoken of the opposition mass media in the country.

Since it was set up in 1996, the magazine has sought relentlessly to expose the ruling authoritarian regime, corrupt officials and the weak opposition through its searing criticism.

Even before the abolition of censorship in Azerbaijan in August 1998, Monitor managed to reach its readers by publishing underground. The magazine was immensely popular with the public because of its bravery, wit and integrity.

The authorities launched approximately 30 court cases against the magazine and its staff, and made them pay heavy fines. The magazine was shut down twice, and in 2001 Husseinov was put in prison for six months.

“They can kill us, but they will never scare us!” he used to say. But up to the last, he did not really believe he was in danger.

Husseinov did not see himself as a professional journalist in the traditional sense. He was an engineer by education, and worked in Russia on irrigation projects. Once, when in Azerbaijan on leave, he happened to meet Rauf Talyshinsky, editor-in-chief of the Zerkalo newspaper, and accepted an offer of work. After a while they parted, and Monitor was published independently.

Monitor fell short of most western journalistic standards. Its sensationalist articles were not always based on firm evidence, and the magazine did not always reflect a balance of opinion.

“Everything I write is my own subjective opinion and the opinion of people like me - if you don’t like it, don’t read it,” was how Husseinov answered a question IWPR once put to him about the tendentious nature of some of Monitor’s material.

Yet the magazine was almost the only publication in Azerbaijan which managed to cover its costs and even make a small profit.

Immediately after the murder, the Azerbaijani opposition accused the authorities of involvement. The leaders of four opposition parties, including the chairman of the Popular Front Party, Ali Kerimli, and the head of the Musavat party, Isa Gambar, called on the Azerbaijani president to find and punish the people who ordered the murder, or else resign.

The next day, President Ilham Aliev called a meeting of the Security Council and told journalists that he considered Husseinov’s murder to be a “stain on Azerbaijan’s reputation”.

“The aim of the killers is to damage Azerbaijan’s image in the eyes of the world, and portray it as an unstable, undemocratic country where terrorist acts happen, freedom of speech is stifled and cracked down on… in the year in which parliamentary elections will be held,” he said.

While Aliev called on the leaders of the opposition to refrain from protests, several Monitor supporters and activists tried to organise impromptu demonstrations on the day of the state-sponsored funeral.

The funeral began with friends of Husseinov demanding that the large portrait of former president Heidar Aliev in the assembly hall of the Academy of Sciences be taken down, or they would refuse to carry the body into the hall where the ceremony was to take place. Officials were forced to comply.

There was another incident was when the Popular Front leader Kerimli stood up to give an oration, and launched into a passionate speech attacking the government.

“Elmar is a victim of political terror,” he said. “The regime does its best to silence anyone who tells the truth. They throw some people into prison, others they subject to physical violence, others are forced to emigrate, and Elmar they have murdered.

“This crime is a message: the authorities are telling us that this is what will happen to anyone who tells the truth. Either they find the murderer or this regime goes!”

Kerimli’s words were met with cries of “Freedom! Freedom!”

At this, the government representatives in attendance - specifically Ali Hasanov, a senior official in the presidential apparatus, and Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party - walked out, and the atmosphere became calmer.

Elmar’s father, Sabir Husseinov, and his friend, the editor of the Ganun (“Law”) magazine, Shahbaz Khuduoglu, asked those present not to turn the funeral ceremony into a political showdown, and to wait until the body had been laid to rest.

Most of the speculation about the crime is that it was politically-motivated.

“It is clear why Elmar was murdered. This murder will arouse concern and fear amongst the entire journalistic community, so that everyone will ask who’s next. This is an act against freedom of speech,” Eldar Zeinalov, director of the Centre for Human Rights of Azerbaijan, told IWPR.

“I think what has happened is one of the most radical means of shutting journalists up,” said opposition political analyst Zardusht Alizade.

“Husseinov was not interested in power. He wanted justice and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. They fined him illegally, they put him in prison illegally, and finally they killed him.

“This is the way the authorities are preparing for the parliamentary elections, but I think they will pay for this. Corrupt authoritarian regimes are being toppled all over the world right now and our government has it coming.”

Husseinov’s murder will undoubtedly have serious political repercussions ahead of the election. Observers are already drawing a parallel between the killing and the death of journalist Georgy Gongadze in Ukraine, which sparked a chain of events which eventually led to the “Orange Revolution” and regime change there.

On the day of Husseinov’s funeral, the speaker of parliament, Murtuz Aleskerov, proposed that deputies should pay their respects by standing for a minute’s silence. Three members of parliament refused to stand.

Western embassies and international organisations sent representatives to attend the funeral. US envoy Reno Harnish made a speech and offered the Azerbaijani government every support in finding the killer. The government accepted the offer, and an FBI officer has come to Azerbaijan to assist with the investigation.

The deputy editor of Monitor, Einulla Fatullayev, told IWPR that without Husseinov, the magazine can no longer be published. However, he said another publication with a different name might come in its place to pursue the same mission - fighting for democracy and freedom of speech.

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan Country Director in Baku.

IWPR’s Caucasus Reporting Service published three articles by Elmar Husseinov in 1999 and 2000. They were: “Aliev's Allies Desert Him Over Nagorno-Karabakh Talks”, October 29, 1999,; “The Nakhichevan Factor”, November 19, 1999, and “Bursting Baku’s Oil Bubble”, January 7, 2000,

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