Azerbaijani Journalist Threatened Over High-Profile Trial

Rights organisations maintain that systematic lack of action in investigating such crimes serves to empower perpetrators.

Lamiya Adilgizi

A journalist covering human rights trials in Azerbaijan has been assaulted in an attack that highlights the dangerous climate in which the country’s reporters continue to operate.

On May 8, Ayten Mammadova was ambushed by an unknown man in the building where she lives. Entering the lift with her, he pressed a sharp object against her throat, “most probably a knife” Mammadova told IWPR.

“He told me, ‘You have not gotten wiser.’ He held the object at my throat the whole time,” the 40-year-old recalled in a shaken voice, adding that he then cursed and threatened her and her 12 year-old daughter.

Keeping the blade against her throat all the time, he demanded she stop writing about “the trial” she was covering.

“It is not easy to go back to that day and recall what happened," Mammadova said, adding that she still had a visible injury on her throat and was having sleep issues which were affecting her health.

Although the man did not specify which trial she should stop monitoring, Mammadova said that he most likely meant the hearing of Ilkin Suleymanov. The 49-year-old man is accused of killing ten-year-old Narmin Guliyeva in the village of Dondar Guschchu, in Azerbaijan’s north-western province of Tovuz.

The girl was found dead near her house on January 6, 2020, 47 days after going missing. The charges allege that Suleymanov, a neighbour, raped and killed the girl before burning her body.

Guliyeva’s murder shook the country, and the trial attracted widespread attention. In January 2020, a few days before the body was identified, President Ilham Aliyev called on the police to do more to find the girl. Chief prosecutor general Zakir Garalov said that the case was under the president’s direct control.

Suleymanov at first denied the crime, but, according to a statement by the prosecutor general’s office, he then “fully acknowledged it”. 

Later in court, Suleymanov said he was tortured and subjected to inhuman treatment and that he was forced to admit the crime.

Mammadova has covered every step of the ongoing trial in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s third largest city, concluding that Suleymanov had been wrongly accused of the crime.

Her reports of numerous inconsistencies specifically cited various police officers and officials from the prosecutor’s office.

She told IWPR that she had received a phone call in late April warning her against publishing articles about the trial. She believes that the assault was linked to that phone call.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil wrote on her Facebook account that Mammadova “repeatedly posed the question about police’s interest in falsifying the evidence and protecting the real rapist and murderer”.

“Ayten Mammadova’s reporting is the only chance for public to know the truth,” Ismayil wrote, adding that the “judiciary in Azerbaijan is corrupt and protects those with power and money”.

Mammadova is a seasoned journalist who worked for Azadliq, one of Azerbaijan’s leading dailies, until the authorities shut it down in 2016 due to the paper’s critical stance against the government. Since then she has been freelancing, often anonymously due to fears for her safety. 

“What happened is definitely related to my professional activity,” Mammadova said, adding she did “not intend to stop writing and doing journalism”.

The attack has been roundly condemned by rights groups and journalists who appealed directly to Aliyev himself.

“The climate of impunity for such attacks must end”

“We believe that the motives of pressure on the journalist are part of this case, which is under control of the president,” the appeal read, labelling the assault against Mammadova as “an attack on freedom of speech and media”.

“The knife that was pointed to her throat is the knife pointed to the throat of all journalists,” the appeal added.

Interior ministry spokesperson Elshad Hajiyev announced that a criminal probe has been launched into the assault.

“To be satisfied with the probe, I need to see a concrete result," Mammadova said, and rights activists also remain sceptical.

A criminal probe launched after the murder of Elmar Huseynov, the editor-in-chief of the Monitor Journal who was killed in front of his house in March 2005, reached a dead-end, 17 years on.

“As it’s always been, the lives of independent journalists are in danger [in Azerbaijan],” human rights defender Anar Mammadli said. “A journalist threatened to be killed with a cold weapon at the entrance of her house cannot be seen as a random crime and it is an indication that the security of journalists is not adequately guaranteed.”

He added that those who behind this act were confident of impunity.

“They are sure that they will not be prosecuted,” Mammadli continued. “This is a very serious problem and in fact a danger not only to journalists, but also to other critics with different positions and views.”

International human rights organisations similarly maintain that Azerbaijan’s authorities systematic lack of action in investigating crimes against journalists empower perpetrators.

“The climate of impunity for such attacks must end,” Human Rights Watch Eurasia’s associate director Giorgi Gogia said and called on the authorities “to urgently and effectively investigate the attack on Mammadova and identify and hold accountable the assailant and ensure journalists are able to do their work safely.”

On May 10, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee stated that “the usual weak and reluctant response by the authorities will mean that there is not rule of law and accountability in Azerbaijan and that certain criminal groups have the freedom to enjoy whatever they want".

Since the 1990s, seven journalists have been killed in Baku, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most recently, on February 22, Azaz Hafizli - a journalist with the news channel Kanal 13 - was killed and mutilated in a murder linked to his work and LGBTIQ activism.

Azerbaijan ranked 154 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Baku dismisses the ratings and criticism calling it as an indicator of double standards and political pressure of western institutions against the government.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.