Prominent Azerbaijani journalist Rasim Aliyev hesitantly approached the crowd of six or seven men last week and extended his hand. Against his better judgement, he’d agreed to meet this group who claimed to be relatives of one of Azerbaijan’s hottest soccer stars. It would prove to be the last meeting he ever took.
A history of confronting authority had made Aliyev prone to attacks, especially by police. Currently a reporter with the Azerbaijan News Network, his past included a stint with the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IFRS) — a media monitoring group whose figurehead was forced to flee Azerbaijan after authorities raided their office and shut down the operation. Threats and intimidation have continued to follow Aliyev throughout his career.
Azeri soccer star Javid Huseynov scored an important goal in a European qualifier for his club team Gabala FK against Cypriot side Apollon Limassol on August 6. Huseynov celebrated his goal by waving a Turkish flag at the opposition team’s supporters, rubbing salt in a wound of the Greek Cypriot team. A strong affinity exists between Azerbaijan and Turkey due to economic and cultural ties. Cyprus, on the other hand, is not diplomatically recognized by the Turks and still harbors resentment following the 1974 invasion where Turkey carved out the northern sector of the island and installed a sympathetic government.
When asked about his antics in a post-match interview with reporters, Huseynov answered defiantly by saying, “Turks are my friends” and making a provocative gesture toward a Greek Cypriot reporter.
Aliyev didn’t take well to what he saw as a blatant act of petulance. “I don’t want us represented in Europe by such an amoral and rude player who cannot control himself,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Huseynov reached out to Aliyev and explained himself. Aliyev later posted an update: “Huseynov told me that his hand gestures were not abusive, but rather expressed the friendship between Turkey and Azerbaijan.”
Despite the clarification, men purporting to be Huseynov’s family continued to bombard Aliyev with phone calls. They invited him for a cup of tea as a peace offering. “I said ‘I don’t want to,’ but he insisted. They came over and I went to meet them alone,” Aliyev told a local television station from his hospital bed on Saturday evening. “When I offered him my hand to greet him, they attacked me from behind and started to hit me. There were six or seven of them, I didn’t see their faces. They were hitting all over my body.”
Aliyev succumbed to his wounds Sunday morning. Huseynov has since been suspended by his club. “Rasim Aliyev’s death deeply saddened everyone at our club. Nobody has a right to threaten and assault people,” Gabala FK said in a statement. “The club has always followed these principles. We are very sorry to see Huseynov’s name mentioned regarding this incident. Even though he is a very important player to our team, we decided to suspend him until things become clear.”
There are conflicting reports about whether or not Elshan Ismailov, Huseynov’s cousin and a soccer player with AZAL Baku’s reserve team, turned himself into police.
“I am very sorry about Rasim Aliyev’s death,” Huseynov responded. “People say that my friends killed him, but that is not the case. I would never allow anyone to kill someone because of me.”
He continued, “I had a decent Facebook chat with Aliyev, and it ended warmly. Now people say that I am a murderer, but I am exactly the same person as before.”
The outpouring of grief and outrage following the murder has found its way up the political ladder to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev (no relation to Rasim). The Azeri leader said he was “seriously concerned” by the journalist’s death and that it signaled a “threat to freedom of speech.”
Experts, however, point the finger back at the president for fomenting a hostile environment for journalists in Azerbaijan. The country is the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia and the fifth most censored country in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“What happened to Rasim was the consequence of an environment that has been created,” Richard D. Kauzlarich, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan from 1994–97, told ThinkProgress. “The arrest of journalists, attacks on independent journalists, and shutting down of radio stations and other foreign press offices [have become] Azerbaijan’s attitude toward a free press and freedom of expression.”
Journalists who have criticized the government have been attacked and jailed in incidents similar to what happened to Aliyev.
“It’s clear he was the latest target among independent media who are critical of the regime,” Kauzlarich said.