Today the international free expression community bids farewell to Rafiq Tagi, who died on 23 November in Baku.
I met Rafiq Tagi in September 2010 in a cafe in a run-down office building in central Baku. As a member of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan, I’d travelled there to assess the climate for free expression in the country. He was there with other journalists and activists to talk about prison conditions, and what it was like to be jailed for publishing in a country where airing critical views often comes at a severe price.
Despite being imprisoned for criticising Islam, the outspoken writer and editor-in-chief of Senet newspaper was anxious to talk about the declining state of free expression in Azerbaijan as well as his own experiences. I remember he smiled a lot and was impatient while waiting for the translator to tell our group what he had to say.
In some ways, he half-joked, he felt the Azerbaijani government had ordered his arrest in 2007 “to save his life”. Possibly there was some truth in this. In Azerbaijan, those who physically attack journalists are never brought to justice and the cycle of impunity there is truly shocking. And after the publication of a controversial article, “Europe and us”, in 2006, Rafiq not only received death threats, but was handed down a fatwa by Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani.
Tagi was stabbed last Saturday in Baku and was thought to be in stable condition. In an interview conducted from his hospital bed, he said he’d probably been attacked for a recent article he’d written about Iran.
I saw him a day or two after the cafe meeting last year, at a free expression conference in Baku. Many government officials were invited to the forum; none of them attended. Rafiq was there, smiling again and hoping for change. He said that international support calling for the release of journalists was crucial, but agreed with another journalist who pointed out that Azerbaijan’s poor record on freedom of expression was a problem Azerbaijanis would have to solve, for the most part, on their own.
Six weeks later, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, who had been arrested for criticising the government, were released just days after the country’s parliamentary elections. In June this year, investigative journalist Eynulla Fatullayev was released too. But more than six years on from the murder of Elmar Huseynov, no one has even been investigated for his death. And now Rafiq Tagi, who asked difficult questions about his country’s future, is no longer here to help his colleagues bring freedom of expression to Azerbaijan.