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23 Aug 2006

Assassination, scandal taints Baku

The accused leader of a murder-for-hire ring confesses to killing an opposition journalist and implicates a former government minister.

By Karl Rahder in Baku

No event in Azerbaijan's recent history has galvanized the political opposition more than the assassination of well-known journalist, Elmar Huseynov in 2005. And no event has succeeded in stunning the opposition and the public more than the confession of a former Interior Ministry colonel that he had led a contract murder ring for the past decade. The colonel's allegation that a former economic development minister ordered Huseynov's assassination may only be the prelude to further revelations.

Gunned down outside his apartment in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on 2 March last year, the 32-year-old husband and father was chief editor of the Monitor, a newspaper known for its investigative journalism and criticism of the government.

Despite an on-going investigation by Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry and the prosecutor general’s office, no progress had been made in tracking down Huseynov’s killer - or killers - until 25 July this year, when Haji Mammadov, former colonel and head of the Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigation Department, declared to a shocked courtroom that he had killed Huseynov.

As for a motive, Mammadov further stunned the court by saying he had acted on orders from Farhad Aliyev, the former economic development minister, who has been languishing in prison since he was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government in October 2005.

The court judge, who was presiding over Mammadov’s trial on charges of running a murder and kidnapping-for-hire ring, immediately adjourned the trial, which has since been delayed twice in the last three weeks.

In a statement released through his lawyers, Aliyev strongly denied any involvement in Huseynov’s killing, alleging that government investigators had threatened to charge him with ordering the journalist’s death if he did not plead guilty to plotting a revolution. “The accusation was so absurd, I did not take it seriously,” Aliyev said in the statement.

The supposed linkage between the journalist’s murder and the former minister is hardly the first time such a connection - a frequent tactic of the prosecutor’s office - has been alleged.

The prosecution has long sought to link political exile Rasul Guliyev with Aliyev. Last year, the prosecutor general’s office alleged that Guliyev, Aliyev, his brother Rafiq, and other public figures were involved in a far-reaching plot to take over the government, a charge that Aliyev has denied.

The network suggested by Mammadov’s charges would, if factual or even widely believed, thoroughly discredit Aliyev, who is seen by many as simply a victim of President Ilham Aliyev’s efforts to consolidate his power base. The president and Farhad Aliyev are not related.

But it is far from clear if the prosecutor’s office is behind the latest allegation. Many analysts here speculate that Mammadov is attempting to avoid a stiff prison sentence by taking responsibility for the long litany of murders and kidnappings while also implicating Aliyev. The prosecutor general’s office did not respond to oral and written requests for comment from ISN Security Watch.

The alleged contract murder ring operated for a decade and was connected to numerous homicides and kidnappings, including the murders of Rovshan Aliyev, deputy chief of the Serious Crimes Department at the prosecutor general’s office, as well as the head of the drug addiction program at the Interior Ministry. The gang is also alleged to have staged several high-profile kidnappings, including the abduction of the wife of the chairman of the International Bank of Azerbaijan.

The allegation of Farhad Aliyev’s involvement in the murder of Huseynov has been met with considerable skepticism here. Sabir Huseynov, the slain journalist’s father, has - like many others - expressed doubt over the accusations against Aliyev, telling the web publication that the linkage between the jailed minister and the former Interior Ministry colonel was “too convenient." "Both of them are already in prison [...] The authorities must find the real killers,” he said.

But some staunch opposition activists are reserving judgment or even accepting the logic of Farhad Aliyev’s involvement. A close colleague of Huseynov’s, reporter Eynulla Feytullayev, wrote last week in the newspaper Real Azerbaijan that Aliyev’s alleged complicity was not only likely, but fit a larger pattern.

Investigators have established that Farhad Aliyev and his brother Rafiq “had met with several representatives of the opposition” during the tumultuous election period last year, Feytullayev wrote, “and financed many mass protest rallies against the government.” Huseynov’s murder, he speculated, could have been ordered by Aliyev to further divide the country and spark “mass involvement” in anti-government protests.

Hinting that more revelations were to come, Mammadov told the court, “I can give the names of more people, people in the government,” according to lawyer Adil Ismailov in an exclusive interview with ISN Security Watch.

Ismailov finds himself in a strange situation in which he represents not only Aliyev, whose trial is expected to take place later this year, but also General Zakir Nasirov, who was Mammadov’s superior officer in the Interior Ministry and is now on trial for his alleged role in the contract-murder ring.

General Nasirov's successor died under mysterious circumstances not long after his appointment, a death that authorities have ruled a suicide. Unsurprisingly, questions persist regarding the official version.

Until recently, the Mammadov and Aliyev cases were completely separate, something that Ismailov continues to emphasize. But Mammadov’s court allegation now threatens to tie Ismailov’s two clients in a web of betrayal, homicide and sedition.

Nevertheless, Ismailov says he was not caught off guard by the new allegations: “It wasn’t a surprise to me. Haji Mammadov can at any time implicate anyone. He can implicate the minister of Internal Affairs. He can say any name he wants.”

Baku now awaits Mammadov’s next accusations. He has reportedly promised to name those who ordered the kidnapping of the son of the owner of Baku’s popular Portofino restaurant, but warned cryptically, “it will bring [...] no good, only harm.”

In anticipation of the October trial against the alleged coup plotters, the government continues to mop up weakened remnants of the opposition by tying Aliyev to the exiled opposition leader Guliyev. The murder charge that may be brought against Aliyev only digs his grave a little deeper, providing the government can either find or manufacture evidence against him.

For many Azeris, however, the interlocking court cases only prove once again that a skilled government apparatus can easily remove its adversaries, both deep inside the government and in the press, while using the court system to provide a patina of legitimacy.

In the meantime, this society, featuring a murder-for-hire gang within the government and continuing acts of violence against journalists, hardly paints a picture of a stable, developing democracy - an image that President Ilham Aliyev has spent considerable effort trying to portray.

Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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