(Berlin) – A prominent Azerbaijani journalist was viciously attacked by police and security guards on the outskirts of Baku on April 18, 2012, demonstrating the government’s ugly disregard for media freedoms in the final weeks before the Eurovision song contest is to be held in the city, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch urged Azerbaijani authorities to conduct a prompt and effective investigation into the vicious attack against Idrak Abbasov, who was beaten by police and security personnel from the state energy company as he attempted to film house demolitions on the outskirts of Baku.
“The fact that security personnel attacked Abbasov in broad daylight is utterly outrageous and shows the climate of impunity for attacks on journalists in Azerbaijan,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Broadcasting Union should not stand by and watch silently as this violent campaign against the media unfolds. If the EBU does not take a public stance on media freedoms in Azerbaijan, the Eurovision Song Contest will suffer a serious stain on its record.”
At about noon, Abbasov, a journalist with the newspaper Zerkalo and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedoms and Safety (IRFS), a media-monitoring group, was filming the demolition of houses illegally constructed in the Sulutepe settlement on the outskirts of the capital, Baku. The houses, located on land held by the state oil company SOCAR, were being demolished by SOCAR to reclaim its land. Residents were protesting the demolition.
Approximately 20 policemen and SOCAR security guards attacked Abbasov, beating him with fists and kicking him until he lost consciousness. Abbasov was taken unconscious to the Baku Hospital No.1, with multiple bruises and hematomas and blood all over his face.
Azerbaijan has a history of unpunished attacks on critical journalists. Independent journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to express their opinions, investigate issues of public interest, or criticize government authorities have been attacked, harassed, threatened, and imprisoned.
Abbasov, who lives in the Sulutepe settlement, had been filming a confrontation between the residents of the settlement and the SOCAR guards. He was wearing a vest with the word “Press” on the back, clearly identifying him as a journalist.
Gunay Musayeva, a journalist from the newspaper Yeni Musavat, who was also there and witnessed the attack, told Human Rights Watch:
I got there shortly after 11 a.m. and saw that the bulldozers were demolishing the houses without allowing the residents to remove their belongings. The bulldozers continued working as SOCAR security guards dragged people out. Idrak was filming this. I was standing next to him, but he asked me to step aside as I could get hurt. I turned around to film with my telephone how a woman and a child got dragged out of their house, and when I turned back I saw that about 20 policemen and SOCAR guards, who wore military uniforms, were beating Idrak. He was on the ground and they continued to kick him. I saw his nose and eye bleeding as well as foam on his mouth, but they continued to kick him. I screamed and wanted to help, but someone grabbed me by my hair and another person grabbed my hand. They did not let me go. I was standing about a meter and a half away from the scene and saw how mercilessly he was beaten. It lasted about 5 to 7 minutes
Abbasov’s two brothers, who also live in the area, came to his aid and eventually managed to stop the attack, though when they intervened the guards and police also beat them. Abbasov’s brothers and Musayeva took him to a nearby ambulance unit. Abbasov was unconscious; his eyes were closed; his right eye was bleeding. Doctors at the medical unit told them that he probably had sustained head trauma and needed to be transferred to a hospital. An ambulance transferred him to a hospital in Baku. By late evening, Abbasov remained hospitalized with a concussion.
In March, Abbasov received an international prize for his reporting from the Index on Censorship, a freedom of expression campaign group.
SOCAR guards assaulted several other journalists at the demolition. An unidentified man kicked Musayeva in the back and slapped her face when she was filming. Another man grabbed her camera and her journalist’s identification card. She continued to film with her mobile camera, but stopped as another man tried to grab it as well.
Three other journalists, including journalists from Radio Liberty and Objective TV, were stopped by SOCAR security as they arrived at the demolition site in a taxi. About 500 meters away from the site, five or six security guards stopped the cab and, when they saw journalists in the car, started to hit it, breaking the glass and the bumper and demanding the that driver turn back.
Azerbaijani authorities should conduct a full and impartial investigation into the conduct of SOCAR security guards and other law enforcement officials who were at the scene, Human Rights Watch said.
The attack against Abbasov took place a month before Baku is scheduled to be the host of the popular Eurovision song contest.
“As thousands of journalists from all over the world come to Baku, the authorities need to do much more than construct palaces and skyscrapers to impress the world,” Williamson said. “Attacks against journalists carried out with impunity will certainly cast a pall on the celebrations.”