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The Azerbaijani government must fully investigate the killing of the editor of the independent weekly magazine Monitor, Human Rights Watch said today. The murder of the editor, Elmar Husseinov, is a frightening reminder of the danger of outspoken criticism in Azerbaijan.

On the evening of Wednesday, March 2, an unknown attacker shot dead Husseinov, founder and editor of Monitor, when he was stepping out of the elevator in the entrance hall to his apartment. According to local media reports, the lights in the entrance hall were not on when then the attacker fired approximately seven shots, four of which hit Husseinov. The electricity and telephone in Husseinov's apartment were also reportedly cut at the time of the shooting.

“Elmar Husseinov was a very brave man who persisted in publishing his magazine despite constant harassment and threats,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.”

Monitor regularly published harsh criticism of the government, including allegations of corruption among high-level officials and their families. As a consequence, it faced constant harassment by the authorities.

Turan Information Agency, an independent Azerbaijani news service, reported that a gun with a silencer was found 150 meters away from Husseinov's apartment block and that the General Procurator's Office issued a statement, announcing that it had opened an investigation into the killing. According to Turan, the statement went on to say that the “General Prosecutor's Office and Ministries of Internal Affairs and National Security state that Husseynov's [sic] murder cannot be used for the political purposes and aggravation of political situation irregardless of its motives.”

“This looks like an organized murder that aimed to silence criticism by one magazine and scare off anyone else who was thinking of following in Husseinov's footsteps,” said Denber. “The Azerbaijani authorities must ensure that the investigation will be thorough and impartial, and they must prosecute whoever is found responsible for the murder.”

“At the same time, Azerbaijan’s government needs to create an environment that is safe for all journalists and stop persecuting those who publish opinions that it doesn't favor,” Denber said.

Monitor's journalists have also been subjected to harassment. The most recent example was on February 2, 2005, when military officials forcefully held Akper Hasanov, a journalist for Monitor, in the Baku military headquarters for almost five hours. According to Hasanov, the officials coerced him to write a retraction of a January article he wrote about poor conditions and abuses in a military unit.

Monitor has been subjected to numerous defamation suits, usually brought by government officials. In 2001, Husseinov spent approximately one month in prison on charges of criminal defamation. In 2003, he was again charged with criminal defamation and was given a prison sentence, suspended upon condition of good behavior. In February 2004, Husseinov described to Human Rights Watch the constant battle that he had to wage to keep printing Monitor. He said that because all the state and most of the private publishing houses refused to print the magazine he sometimes had to organize manual photocopying. No official distributors would sell the magazine and the police harassed and beat individual street sellers who were found selling it. He said that Monitor had been evicted from three rented offices, after police interference, and they no longer had an official office.

Media freedom in Azerbaijan has deteriorated since the presidential elections in October 2003. For background on this issue, please see Azerbaijan: Media, the Presidential Elections and the Aftermath, a Human Rights Watch briefing paper, dated August 4, 2004 .

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