Murky circumstances of sportswriter Rasim Aliyev's murder yet again shame Azerbaijan

Aliyev's colleagues say the football row may be a red herring in his death

Ian Herbert
Monday 17 August 2015 09:12 BST
Rasim Aliyev (left) was no stranger to heavy-handed treatment from the Azerbaijan authorities
Rasim Aliyev (left) was no stranger to heavy-handed treatment from the Azerbaijan authorities

The everyday apparatus of a sports journalist’s working life is to be found in the background to the murder of Rasim Aliyev – one of our number – and that is what makes it so shocking. We all walk around after footballers, thrusting recording devices in their general direction, and we would almost all call a player out for making an obscene gesture at one of our co-inquisitors during such an exchange. Aliyev paid the heaviest price.

Aliyev criticised the Azerbaijan international Javid Huseynov, a 27-year-old forward in the Gabala team once coached by Tony Adams, whose gesture – filmed by one of the six reporters who pursued him, with dictaphones, earlier this month – was “amoral,” he wrote, on Facebook. Huseynov was not a player he wanted to see on the football fields of Azerbaijan, he added. Aliyev subsequently received phone calls, seemingly from the player’s family, and reluctantly agreed to meet in what he assumed was the safety of Baku’s busy, populated Bayil Square. That was where six men arrived and battered him.

The injuries did not immediately seem grave. He spoke clearly and indignantly from his hospital bed in Baku’s City Clinical Hospital a few days later, outlining the course of events, the subsequent hearing loss he hoped was short-term, the agony of his “broken ribs” and his sense of entitlement to criticise Huseynov in the first place. There was something of the everyday in that testimony, too. Aliyev’s iPhone charger trails across the pillow of his bed behind him in the video as he speaks. He was dead within seven hours, the seemingly undiagnosed damage to his spleen so severe that doctors tried to remove it. The authorities said there had been damage to a lung, too.

There has been a superficial sense of action in the past few days by the Azerbaijan authorities, who arrested Huseynov at the weekend. (It was he who caused the stand-off with journalists by raising a Turkish flag during Gabala’s Europa League third qualifying round match on Cypriot soil at Apollon Limassol on 30 July – provoking a Greek reporter to challenge him.) But despite the physical attack occurring in plain view, within range of CCTV cameras according to two sources familiar with the geography of Bayil Square, no footage has been made public. That seems odd. Aliyev’s colleagues say the football story may be a red herring. “I feel a fakeness about it,” fellow journalist Emin Milli tells me.

He and others point to a history of violence and intimidation against Aliyev, which belong to the broader climate of fear in Azerbaijan. Aliyev had worked for the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IFRS), the leading media monitoring group in Azerbaijan. He became its chairman after the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, banned the organisation, froze its bank accounts and pursued its founder and director, Emin Huseynov, who sought refuge in the Swiss embassy and was spirited out to Switzerland.

Rasim Aliyev said he had been subjected to threats after posting a number of photographs showing police brutality. A video compilation on Meydan TV, an online opposition channel hosted by Milli, bears out that claim. There is a pattern of writers who challenge the totalitarian regime dying in suspicious circumstances. Elmar Huseynov, Monitor magazine editor-in-chief, was murdered in 2005. Writer and journalist Rafiq Tagi was stabbed to death in 2011. Both crimes remain unsolved. Aliyev’s friends fear the chances of a full, impartial and independent investigation may be compromised by the fact that the father of the football club’s owner is the regime’s Emergencies Minister, Kamaladdin Heydarov.

This is the country which the European Olympic Committees (EOC) saw fit to host this summer’s European Games, to which Uefa felt it appropriate to allocate three group games and a quarter-final for Euro 2020, and which is expected to compete strongly to host the 2024 Olympics, with its European Games athletics infrastructure likely to work hugely in its favour under the new International Olympic Committee bidding rules. This is the country whose human rights abuses Amnesty International asked Lord Coe to speak out against before the summer games and received nothing.

This is the country which last Thursday quietly jailed for eight and a half years a woman, Leyla Yunus, who had been documenting the treatment of political prisoners in Azerbaijan by the authorities, and had led appeals for a boycott of the European Games. Her husband, Arif Yunus, a historian and political activist, was jailed for seven years; convicted, just like his wife, for “fraud” and other crimes related to their NGO work.

“The European Games represented a chance for the international community to condemn human rights abuses in Azerbaijan,” Amnesty International’s Naomi Westland tells me. “They didn’t. The cameras have been packed up, the caravan has moved on and the criminalisation of those who speak out continues just the same.”

I tried to speak to Adams for his own reflections on events this weekend but he could not be reached. In the meantime, Rasim Aliyev’s friends and fiancée are left to wonder why he died and who killed him. “He only started the sports journalism to make some money,” says Milli. “He had to look for work when the government closed down his organisation. He was a silent hero. He was never afraid to take a blow.”

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Who would have thought that Nike, the company we have to thanks for removing British Athletics’ prime competitor Mo Farah into the tutelage of Alberto Salazar at the Oregon Project, might come up with a more vivid form of emasculation: British team vests minus Union flags for the World Championships, which begin in Beijing on Saturday.

“The vest… says ‘Great Britain’ in massive letters,” British Athletics’ chief executive, Niels de Vos, has insisted, amid universal dismay from competitors. It would have taken the most untutored sports marketer to know that ‘Team GB’ – not Great Britain – was the moniker that captured the nation in 2012. “GB” in massive letters would have been something. Nike has stumped up £15m to sponsor British Athletics but there have been some very heavy prices to pay.

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