European Court to consider Azerbaijan’s responsibility in the murder of critical journalist Rafig Tagi
On 16 May 2017, the European Court of Human Rights has begun its examination of the case of journalist and writer Rafig Tagi, who was killed in November 2011. Mr Tagi was a well-known critic of the influence of Iran and Islam on Azerbaijan and had been threatened and imprisoned for his writings in the past. Having failed to find justice for her husband’s murder in Azerbaijani courts, Mr Tagi’s wife, Mayila Tagiyeva applied to the European Court of Human Rights. She is represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and lawyers from the Media Rights Institute, a Baku-based NGO which was forced to close after the crackdown on civil society in 2014.
On 19 November 2011, Mr Tagi was stabbed as he returned home from work, nine days after he had published an article criticising the religious nature of the Iranian state. He remained in hospital for four days where he appeared to be recovering, and gave two media interviews about the incident. On 23 November, he suddenly deteriorated unexpectedly and died. Ayatolla Mohammed Fazel Lankarani’s son made a statement congratulating the killer and the Azerbaijani nation for Mr Tagi’s death.
Although criminal proceedings were initiated after Mr. Tagi was stabbed, the investigation was marred by deficiencies and delays and was eventually suspended in November 2013, without anyone being held responsible for his death. The authorities failed to take reasonable steps to secure the evidence concerning his murder, such as the CCTV footage of his journey home on 19 November 2011 when he was stabbed. His wife struggled to acquire victim status in the case, which prevented her from full participation in the investigation, including accessing the investigative material, such as video footage or witness testimonies. Her multiple appeals were either ignored or dismissed.
In her application before the European Court, Ms. Tagiyeva argues that the Azerbaijani authorities failed to protect her husband’s right to life (under the positive obligation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), though it knew or ought to have known about a risk to his life; and failed to conduct an effective investigation into his death (under the procedural limb). She further argued that her husband was targeted on account of his journalistic activity, in violation of his right to freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR). She also complains that she had no effective remedy to ensure effective and thorough investigation into the murder domestically, under Article 13 ECHR. In a similar case, the European Court recently found Azerbaijan responsible for failing to effectively investigate the murder of a critical journalist Elmar Huseynov, who was shot dead in his apartment building upon his return home on 2 March 2005.
Mr. Tagi had faced threats to his life as a result of his critical writing. Following the publication in November 2006 of an article explicitly criticising Islam as a religion he received multiple death threats from Azerbaijani and Iranian religious groups, including Ayatolla Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, who issued a fatwa calling for his death. As a result he was placed under police protection for several months. However, in May 2007 the authorities convicted him of incitement to hatred on the basis of his writings, and he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. He was released in December 2007 by a presidential pardon.
The Azerbaijani Government is required to respond to the European Court’s communication by 12 September 2017, following which the applicant will be invited to submit her comments on the Government’s response.