On March 2, Elmar Huseynov, editor of the popular weekly Monitor, was shot to death while returning home in Baku around 7 pm. Politicians and ordinary citizens alike were horrified by the violent attack on the 37-year old journalist. President Ilham Aliev immediately convened a meeting of the Security Council and promised a thorough investigation. (Huseynov’s Monitor is not connected to the Jamestown Foundation or this publication.)
Politicians from both the opposition and the government denounced Huseynov’s death. “Elmar’s death is a political terror,” shouted Ali Kerimli, the chairman of the opposition Popular Front, as he arrived at the scene of the tragedy. Parliament Speaker Murtuz Aleskerov declared, “The murder of Elmar Huseynov is aimed at weakening Azerbaijani statehood. There are forces inside Azerbaijan that are trying to break the stability in the country. These forces will do further acts like this prior to the parliamentary elections” (Zerkalo, March 5).
International media and human rights organizations also harshly condemned the killing. Representatives from Reporters without Borders have offered to come to Azerbaijan and help the investigation process (Turan, March 4). The FBI has already sent its own expert to Baku. Transparency International issued a press release expressing its “shock from the death of famous journalist-investigator Elmar Huseynov” (Echo, March 5). The U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Committee on Human Rights, the Council of Europe, and many other international institutions have also expressed sorrow and anger over the tragedy (Zerkalo, March 5).
Huseynov’s funeral on March 4 turned into a mass rally. Zerkalo reported that nearly 10,000 people attended the service and the subsequent march from the Academy of Sciences, where Huseynov’s body lay in repose, to the cemetery. Many prominent Azerbaijani policymakers, including Lala Shovket Hajiyeva (head of the Liberal Party), Isa Gambar (Musavat), Ali Kerimli (Popular Front), Ali Ahmadov (Yeni Azerbaijan), journalists, NGO activists, representatives of the government and foreign embassies, human rights defenders, and ordinary people came to pay a final tribute to Huseynov.
Despite the public attention to the case, there is little information about exactly what happened that night. There were no witnesses to the murder and electricity and phone service at the apartment building had been shut off at the time of the attack.
Huseynov had a unique and often contradictory image in the local media. Many considered him to be a vigorous opponent of the government. Others point to his articles against the opposition and consider him to be neutral. Yet, everyone seems to agree that he refused to compromise his beliefs and sought to speak freely and write on issues that few dared to discuss.
Huseynov’s Monitor was popular both among the opposition and government officials. It harshly criticized the authorities for corruption and the lack of democracy and did it in a radical — and at times slanderous — way. In return, the journal was sued and fined more than a dozen times. One of Huseynov’s colleagues estimated that the fines totaled close to $200,000 (Space Radio, March 6). The most recent fine of $20,000 was so burdensome for the journal that Huseynov had to sell furniture from his home to pay it.
Yet, no matter how critical and radical Huseynov was, there are many people in the country who believe that the government had little reason to instigate the murder, as the opposition claims. While popular opinion suggests that the murder was intended to weaken freed speech prior the November parliamentary elections, many policy analysts argue that the murder could have been organized by outsiders.
On March 6, Lider TV’s weekly analytical news program argued that there are political forces outside of Azerbaijan who are jealous of Baku’s recent diplomatic advances at the Council of Europe and the UN and devised the murder to destabilize the country and weaken Azerbaijan’s negotiating stance.
Similarly, a March 5 op-ed in the Zerkalo newspaper wrote, “Now… when the power of Azerbaijan is beginning to strengthen, the Armenia and pro-Armenian forces have only one remaining chance; to blow up the situation…. Our authorities are not stupid enough to issue the order to get rid of an uncontrolled journalist. It was enough that the businessmen were not advertising in the magazine. I am deeply convinced that the murder of Monitor’s editor…is the work of a ‘fifth column,’ traitors to the country.”
Finally, some quarters suggest that the assassination might have been done by some political groupings inside the government, as part of an effort to weaken the increasing power of President Aliev. Many fingers also point to the feuding that is reportedly taking place within the ruling party and is expected to increase prior the parliamentary elections.
Whatever the true reason behind the tragic and mysterious murder, it will inevitably hurt the image of Azerbaijan abroad as well as the development of democracy at home. Samed Seidov, head of the Azerbaijani parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said, “Elmar Huseynov’s death will put the Azerbaijani delegation in a difficult position in the spring session of PACE.” Delegates will undoubtedly be grilled about the incident (Zerkalo, March 5).
Huseynov’s murder is being compared to the tragic murders of journalists Heorhiy Gongadze in Ukraine and Georgy Sanaya in Georgia. Some even expect that the public protests will follow, similar to the recent events in Lebanon. Most certainly, whoever was behind the murder intended to destabilize Azerbaijan. And surely there are forces within the country that are trying to use the situation to their own maximum advantage. However, above all, it is the President’s credibility and the freedom of speech in the country that are at stake.