By Samira Ahmedbeyli

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
April 25, 2012

Idrak Abbasov placed in intensive care after assault while filming
house demolition.

An award-winning Azerbaijani journalist is in hospital in Baku
suffering head injuries when he was severely beaten while filming
workers attempting to demolish homes in a long-running land dispute.

The April 18 attack on Idrak Abbasov came just three weeks after
he received a prestigious award for his journalism at an Index on
Censorship ceremony in London.

Abbasov, who reports for the Ayna and Zerkalo newspaper and the
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, as well as working
as an IWPR trainer and contributor, was beaten after residents of
Sulutepe, just outside Baku, blocked a major road in protest against
the demolition.

It was the latest round in an ongoing campaign to remove homes from
land which the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, SOCAR, says belongs
to it. In previous incidents, local homeowners say they have been
assaulted by security guards accompanying the demolition teams.

"But this time they were particularly fierce," Gunay Musayeva,
a reporter for the Yeni Musavat newspaper, said. "They beat all
the residents of the area, and did not stand on ceremony even with
journalists. I was filming oil company workers beating a woman, when
just a metre-and-a-half away from me, they knocked Idrak to the ground
and started hitting him with sticks and kicking him."

She continued, "When I ran to him, one of the workers grabbed me from
behind by my hair and punched me right in the face. Then others came
and took my camera away."

Roman Abbasov, one of Idrak's brothers, said the workers spotted
Abbasov filming them.

"They took the camera, threw him to the ground and started kicking
him. He was covered in blood, his head smashed up, and one eye closed
over," he said. "My brother Adalat and I threw ourselves upon Idrak
to cover him. Then they started beating us," he said.

Other journalists who heard about the attack rushed to the scene,
among them Esmira Javadova, who reports for Radio Liberty.

"The taxi I was travelling in together with Galib, a cameraman for
IRFS [Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety], was brought to a
halt by SOCAR buses blocking the road," she said. "Workers came out
of the bus and started to hitting the car with sticks, and smashed
the windscreen. They forcibly hauled Galib out of the car and started
taking him off somewhere. At the same time, they were shouting every
swearword imaginable at us, demanding that we leave."

Abbasov and other who had been injured were taken to the Baku's main
hospital, accompanied by a group of journalists.

"We spoke to the doctors, and they said Idrak had damage to his
skull and brain and was now in intensive care," Seymur Kazimov,
a close friend of Abbasov, said.

Hospital doctors told IWPR that Abbasov's brother Adalat was also
in serious condition with head injuries and broken ribs. It is not
clear how long they will require treatment.

A spokesman for SOCAR, Nizamaddin Guliyev, said he knew nothing about
the clash but promised to look into it.

"I heard about this incident from a journalist. I was in a meeting. I
will look into the matter and give you an answer," he said.

Orkhan Mansurzade, a spokesman for Azerbaijan's interior ministry,
said an investigation was already under way.

Media rights activists said the assault on Abbasov came within a wider
context of recent official statements equating criticism of the country
with support for Azerbaijan's enemy Armenia, in other words treason.

"If the president makes a speech saying that many journalists are
defending the interests of Armenia, then lower-ranking officials are
going to take their lead from that and take tougher action against
journalists," Emin Huseynov, director of IRFS in Azerbaijan, said. "I
believe restrictions on the press and on freedom of speech come from
the very top of government."

On March 28, Abbasov won the prestigious Guardian prize for journalism
at the Index on Censorship awards ceremony in London. Judges citing
the work he had done to expose attacks on private property, and
the violence he had suffered in the course of his work. (See Azeri
Journalist Honoured for Courage.)

This is the second time in recent months that Abbasov has been
targeted. Several of his family members were hospitalised last year
in an assault on their home, which is located in Sulutepe but is not
subject to a demolition order. (For more, see Azerbaijani Journalist
Under Pressure.)

Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR reporter in Azerbaijan