Fierce Critic of Azeri Government Gunned Down Opposition Rises to Occasion

US urges Azerbaijan to do utmost in investigating murder to bring killers to justice

BAKU (Reuters)–Azeri President Ilham Aliyev warned opponents on Thursday to refrain from turning the funeral of a murdered journalist and fierce government critic into a public protest against his rule.

Elmar Huseinov–38–was shot dead on Wednesday by gunmen on the stairway of his apartment bloc. He was the editor-in-chief of Monitor magazine and a staunch critic of the government.

Leaders of Azerbaijan’s fractured opposition vowed to turn Friday’s funeral into a show of unity and public discontent with the government.

"We will organize the funeral in a way that will show the popular hatred of the regime," said Ali Kerimli–the head of the key National Front opposition party. "The opposition will unite in removing this regime in a peaceful way."

Aliyev–in televised commen’s after an emergency meeting of his Security Council–said that Huseinov’s murder served the interests of those who want to destabilize the country.

"The tragedy for [Huseinov’s] family can become an instrument in certain hands," he said. "This cannot be allowed."

"We should not make a political campaign out of this crime. We will not allow this," Aliyev added. "All political forces should behave with patience and not break the law and not use this killing to advance their own ambitions."

Azerbaijan became the former Soviet Union’s first dynasty when Aliyev succeeded his iron-fisted father in 2003 as leader of the mainly Muslim state of 8 million people.

His election–criticized by observers as falling short of international standards–was greeted with protests in the capital in which two people were killed and scores injured.

More than 100 people were arrested. Most have since been released but several opposition leaders were handed jail terms. The European Union said this month there were "extensive–credible–allegations" of torture in the country’s jails.

Huseinov’s magazine has been closed several times and fined for critical articles about leading politicians and businessmen. The murdered journalist had spent six months in jail for his opposition activities.

NO REVOLUTION

In a clear reference to deman’s by opposition leaders and Huseinov’s family–Aliyev said he was ready to let foreign experts join the investigation. The US embassy in Baku urged the Azeri government to do everything possible to investigate the murder.

"The US embassy urges the Azerbaijani government to do everything possible to investigate Elmar Huseynov’s murder fully and to bring his killer or killers to justice," the US embassy said in a faxed statement.

"Elmar Huseinov’s death is a great loss to the ongoing development of democracy and press freedom in Azerbaijan," an embassy statement said. Azeri opposition plans reflected growing popular unrest in some ex-Soviet states. There has been an upsurge in street protests even in Russia–most of them over social reforms.

In just over a year–new governmen’s have come to power in Georgia and Ukraine on the back of ‘people power’ revolutions.

That has triggered speculation that the position of other leaders in a region stretching from the edge of the European Union to central Asia might be shaky.

But Azeri officials say Aliyev’s popularity and the memory of the political turmoil in Azerbaijan which almost turned into civil war in 1993 leave no chance for a revolution.

"People will not be so naive as to entrust their fate to those would bring them to the edge of the abyss once again," presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehtiyev said last month.

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