“The stabbing of Agil Khalil is part of campaign of repression about the Azerbaijani press,” says Emin Huseynov, Chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety in Baku. “Every March before an election there is an attack on the press. Before the 2005 parliamentary elections, the editor of the Monitor Journal was murdered. The government wants to instill fear and prevent dissident thinking.”
Huseynov also does not discount the possibility that the attack on Khalil was intended as a message to the West. “It is interesting that just two days before [the stabbing] the U.S. released is annual report on human rights practices,” he said. “There is something to the theory that after such reports are released, attacks like this take place as retribution, to make the point that such reports [accomplish] nothing, and that our government has no obligation to listen to other countries.”
Along with direct violence, the Alieyv regime is fond of other methods familiar to watchers of post-Soviet petro-states. Fitting a pattern, earlier this month a Baku Court sentenced the editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Azadlyq (“Freedom”) to four years imprisonment for "hooliganism and causing damage to the health of a person” after he allegedly insulted a woman in the street. The judgment was read in a closed session. The case echoed the punishment handed to two journalists from the independent newspaper Nota Bene, who were found guilty of defamation in February and sentenced to two-year imprisonment and 18-months corrective labor, respectively, after they published articles relating to corruption within the Interior Ministry.
According to local activists, the state also targets businesses associated with opposition media outlets. In January 2008, the printing house Chap Evi, which prints media critical of the Azerbaijani government, was subjected to an unscheduled tax inspection without explanation.
The West is not deaf to the growing calls by Azeri activists for global condemnation. When Kahlil was stabbed, the U.S. ambassador in Baku visited him in the hospital and called for an investigation. But opposition activists are beginning to plead for more than just words.
“The Western embassies here have been increasingly vocal about problems in the areas of press freedom and freedom of expression, but it would be more effective if they took more concrete steps like sanctions,” says Huseynov. Last year a group of civil society figures appealed without success to the EU to get them to enact targeted sanctions of the sort they approved against Belarus, such as limiting the travel of certain corrupt officials and freezing their foreign bank accounts.
|Just what it looks like. On the streets of Sumgayit.
As Huseynov and most Azeri opposition activists would admit, this is unlikely to happen so long as Azerbaijan remains a friendly oil supplier sandwiched between Russia and Iran. There is also the question of the West’s ability to influence local politics here. When Western governments increased the human rights heat on Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov after the 2005 massacre of protesters in Andijan, he fought back. Tashkent threw the Americans out of a key airbase, withdrew from a regional NATO-mentored military alliance, and joined the Moscow-led SCTO. To top it off, Karimov only tightened the human rights abuse screws.
“The oil has an impact on the political situation. Western countries have been very vocal in their criticism of Belarus and Russia, but very careful about Azerbaijan,” says Khadija Ismayilova, the Azeri correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “The government is also adept at playing the West and Russia off each other.”