Azerbaijan: Opposition journalist leaves for France
|Author||Khadija Ismayilova and Maarif Akperili|
|Publication Date||26 July 2008|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Azerbaijan: Opposition journalist leaves for France, 26 July 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/489ac4c82.html [accessed 25 May 2015]|
Khadija Ismayilova and Maarif Akperili: 7/26/08
Azerbaijani opposition newspaper reporter Agil Khalil, the focus of a recent scandalous court case, has left Azerbaijan for France after several earlier thwarted attempts to leave the country.
Khalil, who flew out of Baku late in the evening on July 24 to meet with the Paris-based media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders, has stated that he plans to return to Azerbaijan.
The Azadlig (Freedom) daily newspaper reporter made headlines in February 2008 after being beaten by two security officers while working on a story about Ministry of National Security officials' alleged involvement in criminal land deals. In two separate incidents, unknown assailants later stabbed him and tried to throw the reporter under a train in a Baku subway station.
Prosecutors never investigated Khalil's beating, but on July 15 a man presented as the reporter's alleged former lover was sentenced to a year-and-a-half prison term for the stabbing. Local and international watchdog groups believe that the charge was aimed at discrediting Khalil in Azerbaijan's homophobic society.
"This is the climax of a smear campaign orchestrated by law-enforcers against Khalil, his newspaper, and the remnants of critical journalism in Azerbaijan," charged Miklos Haraszeti, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Representative for Freedom of the Media, in a July 17 statement.
In recent days, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has spoken out strongly against international criticism of his country's human rights record.
A decision to block Khalil from leaving the country conceivably would have added to that outcry.
Speaking from Paris, Khalil said that on July 22 he had also tried to fly out of Baku for France, but had failed.
"They kept me at the border for half an hour. Then they said 'You are on the list of wanted people,' and showed me some document. I could not convince them that there is something wrong with this information," Khalil said in a phone interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Khalil says that interior ministry bodyguards accompanying him blocked airport border guards from searching his belongings and arresting him. Police officers later arrived on the scene.
"The border officers did not show the police officers the document about me being on a wanted list," he recounted. "The border officers and the [police] argued a little bit and then they allowed me to go home."
Intervention by United States and French embassy officials at last solved the problem two days later, Khalil said. "After this, the border service apologized. They said 'Now you can leave the country...'"
Khalil, who has been shortlisted for an award from human rights watchdog Amnesty International, says that he does not plan to stay in France, however.
"Even though I was persecuted in my country, even though I was a target for pressure, even though they did not punish the people who stabbed and beat me, even though it is not safe for me to be in Azerbaijan, I will not stay here," he said. "I miss my country and I will go back when I finish my business here."
Local newspapers have speculated that the tussle over Khalil's departure indicates a conflict between law enforcement agencies on treatment of the media.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, however, denies that any disagreement occurred between law enforcement agencies over Khalil's departure.
In comments to EurasiaNet, ministry spokesperson Ehsan Zahidov denied the incident at the airport, saying that "this story was made up by those who want to create tension between the law enforcement structures."
"The permission for someone to leave [Azerbaijan] is sent to all law enforcement agencies at the same time. There could be no problem there," Zahidov said.
Several witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity, though, have confirmed the incident. "There was a real fight between the guards and the border officers," one source said. "We decided to keep quiet about it so that they wouldn't create additional problems for Agil's departure."
The State Airlines Company, which manages Baku's Heydar Aliyev International Airport, did not comment on the issue.
Khalil had earlier attempted to leave Azerbaijan by train, but was stopped at the border. Officials said that the reporter could not leave the country while the investigation into his stabbing was ongoing.
Khalil's attorney, Elchin Sadigov, has countered that the law does not provide any basis for stopping crime victims from leaving Azerbaijan.
Editor's Note: Khadija Ismayilova and Maarif Akperili are RFE/RL correspondents in Baku.
Posted July 26, 2008 © EurasiaNet