Council of Europe: Impunity for journalist murders must end

On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, ARTICLE 19 has submitted two alerts to the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, regarding ongoing impunity in two cases in the region: Rafiq Tagi, murdered in Azerbaijan in November 2011 and Gadzhimurad Kamalov, murdered in the Russian Federation in December 2011.

There are currently 16 cases of journalists murdered with total or partial impunity registered on the Council of Europe platform.

The murder of these journalists is a tragedy and grave violation of their right to life; and the ongoing impunity in these cases casts a chilling effect on freedom of expression, preventing others from speaking out on controversial topics. We call upon the authorities of Azerbaijan and Russia, and all other governments in the region, to bring to justice those responsible for the murders of these journalists, and actively work to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Rafiq Tagi, Azerbaijan (2011)

Azerbaijani freelance journalist Rafiq Tagi died in Baku in November 2011. A regular contributor to Radio Free Europe’s Azerbaijani Service and a well-known critic of Azerbaijani authorities and religious oppression in Azerbaijan and Iran, he died in hospital on 23 November 2011. He was receiving treatment having been stabbed in Baku on 19 November by an unknown assailant.

During an interview on 21 November, Tagi suggested the attack was related to his criticism of the Iranian authorities for their theologically based policies and suppression of human rights in an article published the previous month. Previously, in November 2006, a prominent Iranian cleric had issued a religious fatwa calling for Tagi’s death. Tagi and his family were briefly placed under police protection in Azerbaijan; however, this was withdrawn after Tagi was imprisoned on charges of incitement to religious hatred, in connection to an article criticizing Iran. Tagi was released by presidential pardon in 2017; however, the charges appear to be groundless.

The Azerbaijani authorities have failed to adequately investigate both the circumstances of the initial attack and Tagi’s subsequent death, and no perpetrator has been brought to justice. In January 2014, Elcin Sadyqov, Tagi’s lawyer, reported that the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General’s Office had informed him in writing that the investigation into Tagi’s death has ended.

Tagi’s family and human rights groups have raised suspicions about the circumstances of his death, stating that he died suddenly as his condition stabilised and noting a lack of security in the hospital prior to his death. They have also raised multiple shortcomings in the process of the investigation into his death.

On 17 May 2017, the European Court of Human Rights accepted an application from Tagi’s widow, alleging a violation of Article 2 (‘right to life’), on the grounds that the Azerbaijani authorities failed to protect her husband’s right to life because they should have known about the threats faced, and that the domestic authorities failed to conduct an effective investigation into the death of her husband. The application also alleges a violation of Article 10 (‘freedom of expression’), on the grounds that Tagi was targeted on account of his journalistic activities.

Gadzhimurad Kamalov, Russia (2011)

On 15 December 2011, Gadzhimurad Kamalov, founder and editor of Chernovik newspaper, was shot dead in Makhachkala, the capital city of the Republic of Dagestan, Russia,

A vocal critic of corruption and abuse of power, Kamalov and other journalists at Chernovik, had previously experienced a wide-range of attacks, from harassment, threats, and physical violence, to criminal charges and confiscation of copies of the newspaper. Kamalov was shot dead by an unknown assailant as he left his office to go home.

The Dagestani authorities have failed to properly investigate Kamalov’s murder, failing to find any suspect or bring charges. Although there is little publicly available information about the status of the investigation, at the time of writing, complete impunity in Kamalov’s murder remains. Investigators have failed to explore leads brought forward by Kamalov’s family, and refused their requests for the case to be investigated by Russia’s Federal Security Service. In 2013, Kamalov’s brother told the Committee to Protect Journalists that they did not rule out the involvement of Dagestani officials in the murder.

In spring 2013, Orkhan Jemal, a local journalist in Dagestan published an investigation into Kamalov’s death, alleging the involvement of a Dagestani MP in the murder. The MP denied the allegation and brought a defamation case against Orkhan Jemal; however, this was subsequently dropped.

Chernovik continues to publish but has changed its masthead in memory of Kamalov: “Information is worth dying for”.