WASHINGTON - Human rights groups are condemning the murder of an Azerbaijani journalist who died on Sunday following an attack by unknown assailants.
They urged authorities Monday to conduct a full and transparent probe into the attack on Rasim Aliyev and to bring the assailants to justice.
Officials connect the attack with a Facebook post on Saturday in which Aliyev, who worked for the ann.az news website, criticized a popular soccer player in Azerbaijan.
Aliyev said Cavid Huseynov, a striker for Gabala FK, should be banned from European football for allegedly making a rude gesture at a Cypriot journalist.
According to local media reports, Aliyev was beaten up on Saturday after he was lured to meet an unidentified man who claimed to be a relative of Huseynov. He underwent surgery at a hospital due to massive internal injuries and died on Sunday.
"I came out alone," Aliyev said before he died. "There were five or six of them, and they immediately threw themselves at me and started beating me up."
Authorities in Azerbaijan say the attack is under investigation. Azerbaijani news agency Baku Turan reported that one of the suspected attackers has been detained, identifying him as Elsan Ismayilov, a cousin of Huseynov.
Rights groups said the before the Huseynov posting, Aliyev had already been receiving threatening messages connected to photos he had posted online showing police brutality and social discontent.
He had been an employee and board member of Azerbaijan's leading media freedom organization, the Insitute for Reporter's Freedom and Safety (IRFS), until it was closed by authorities last year.
"We are deeply shocked and saddened by the murder of Rasim Aliyev," said Melody Party, a senior official at Index for Censorship. "The attack on Rasim takes place in a deteriorating environment for media professionals and civil society in Azerbaijan."
The Azerbaijan Press Agency (APA) quoted a senior official who said President Ilham Aliyev is "seriously concerned" about the killing of Rasim Aliyev. The official, Ali Hasanov, added that the president described the incident as a "threat" to freedom of speech and said ensuring the freedom of mass media is a priority of Azerbaijan's government.
Azerbaijan's recent record on free speech earned widespread international attention in June when Azerbaijan hosted the inaugural European Games, the biggest athletic event in the country's history.
At the time, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists described Azerbaijan as the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, noting that eight independent journalists were in prison because of their critical reporting.
"As Rasim Aliyev's murder shows, critical voices are at greater risk now than ever before," said Sports for Rights, one of the groups that condemned the murder of Rasim Aliyev. "The international community must act now to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights obligations and promote much-needed reforms in the country.