Award-Winning Azeri Reporter Beaten By Oil Company Workers

By Samira Ahmedbeyli

BAKU, Azerbaijan, April 19, 2012 (ENS) – An award-winning Azerbaijani journalist is in hospital in Baku suffering head injuries when he was severely beaten while filming workers attempting to demolish homes in a long-running land dispute involving the state-owned oil and natural gas corporation of Azerbaijan.

The April 18 attack on Idrak Abbasov came just three weeks after he received a prestigious award for his journalism at a Guardian newspaper Index on Censorship ceremony in London.

Abbasov, who reports for the Ayna and Zerkalo newspaper, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, and the Institute for Wwar and Peace Reporting, was beaten after residents of Sulutepe, just outside Baku, blocked a major road in protest against the demolition.

Idrak Abbasov in hospital, April 18, 2012 (Photo courtesy IWPR)

It was the latest round in an ongoing campaign to remove homes from land which the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, SOCAR, says belongs to it. In previous incidents, local homeowners say they have been assaulted by security guards accompanying the demolition teams.

“But this time they were particularly fierce,” Gunay Musayeva, a reporter for the Yeni Musavat newspaper, said. “They beat all the residents of the area, and did not stand on ceremony even with journalists. I was filming oil company workers beating a woman, when just a metre-and-a-half away from me, they knocked Idrak to the ground and started hitting him with sticks and kicking him.”

She continued, “When I ran to him, one of the workers grabbed me from behind by my hair and punched me right in the face. Then others came and took my camera away.”

Roman Abbasov, one of Idrak’s brothers, said the workers spotted Abbasov filming them.

“They took the camera, threw him to the ground and started kicking him. He was covered in blood, his head smashed up, and one eye closed over,” he said. “My brother Adalat and I threw ourselves upon Idrak to cover him. Then they started beating us,” he said.

Other journalists who heard about the attack rushed to the scene, among them Esmira Javadova, who reports for Radio Liberty.

Man threatens video journalist with a club on land claimed by SOCAR in Sulutepe, Azerbaijan, April 18, 2012 (Image from video by Obyectiv TV)

“The taxi I was travelling in together with Galib, a cameraman for IRFS [Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety], was brought to a halt by SOCAR buses blocking the road,” she said. “Workers came out of the bus and started to hitting the car with sticks, and smashed the windscreen. They forcibly hauled Galib out of the car and started taking him off somewhere. At the same time, they were shouting every swearword imaginable at us, demanding that we leave.”

Abbasov and other who had been injured were taken to the Baku’s main hospital, accompanied by a group of journalists.

“We spoke to the doctors, and they said Idrak had damage to his skull and brain and was now in intensive care,” Seymur Kazimov, a close friend of Abbasov, said.

Hospital doctors told IWPR that Abbasov’s brother Adalat was also in serious condition with head injuries and broken ribs. It is not clear how long they will require treatment.

A spokesman for SOCAR, Nizamaddin Guliyev, said he knew nothing about the clash but promised to look into it.

Demolished homes in Sulutepe, Azerbaijan (Image from video by Obyectiv TV)

“I heard about this incident from a journalist. I was in a meeting. I will look into the matter and give you an answer,” he said.

Orkhan Mansurzade, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s interior ministry, said an investigation was already under way.

Media rights activists said the assault on Abbasov came within a wider context of recent official statements equating criticism of the country with support for Azerbaijan’s enemy Armenia, in other words, treason.

“If the president makes a speech saying that many journalists are defending the interests of Armenia, then lower-ranking officials are going to take their lead from that and take tougher action against journalists,” Emin Huseynov, director of IRFS in Azerbaijan, said. “I believe restrictions on the press and on freedom of speech come from the very top of government.”

On March 28, Abbasov was awarded the prestigious Guardian prize for journalism at the Index on Censorship awards ceremony in London. Judges citing the work he had done to expose attacks on private property, and the violence he had suffered in the course of his work.

This is the second time in recent months that Abbasov has been targeted. Several of his family members were hospitalised last year in an assault on their home, which is located in Sulutepe but is not subject to a demolition order.

Accepting the Index on Censorship award, Abbasov said, “First of all, I would like to thank Index on Censorship and all those present. I know that there are many people here today who devote their lives to the struggle for other people’s right to know the truth.”

Idrak Abbasov, right, receives the 2012 Guardian Index on Censorship award from British broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, March 28, 2012.

“In Azerbaijan, where I have come from, telling the truth can cost a journalist their life. In countries such as Azerbaijan we journalists have to make a choice, and we choose the right to tell the truth.”

“For this right to tell the truth Elmar Guseinov gave his life in 2005. He knew he would not be forgiven, but he did not stop writing the truth.”

“I am not complaining. I made a conscious choice when I chose this profession, and I thank fate every day for my work.”

“Censorship, persecution, limited access to public information, arrests – the situation of the mass media in Azerbaijan is growing worse and their freedom is being curtailed year after year.”

“At the moment, nine journalists are under arrest on trumped-up charges of possessing drugs or weapons. In Azerbaijan, a request from a deputy of the ruling party is sufficient grounds for arresting the editor of a journal that is criticising the government, even in the absence of evidence. This is what happened to Evez Zeynalli.”

“In the town of Guba, four journalists were arrested without any charge whatsoever. Human rights activists are convinced that they were arrested for passing on to bloggers a video recording of an event that the censor had not wanted to see publicised.”

“Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist working for Radio Liberty, was blackmailed in an attempt to force her to stop her investigations into offshore companies owned by the President’s family. In 2009 Radio Liberty, the BBC and Voice of America were banned from local radio stations.”

“This is the price that my colleagues in Azerbaijan are paying for the right of the Azerbaijani people to know the truth about what is happening in their country. For the sake of this right we accept that our lives are in danger, as are the lives of our families. But the goal is worth it, since the right to truth is worth more than a life without truth.”

{This article, excepting Abbasov’s remarks at the Index on Censorship award ceremony, was originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on April 18, 2012}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.