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Azerbaijan: Journalists face spurious smuggling charges

Azerbaijan: Journalists face spurious smuggling charges
Azerbaijan: Journalists face spurious smuggling charges

International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) condemns the detentions of three journalists associated with the online media outlet Abzas Media in Azerbaijan. They all face charges of smuggling foreign currency into the country and risk a lengthy prison sentence if convicted. We believe that they were targeted in retaliation for the media outlet’s independent and investigative reporting, in particular on high-level corruption, and call on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release them and allow Abzas Media to carry out its work without hindrance.

In the morning of 20 November 2023, Ulvi Hasanli, Director of Abzas Media, was detained by police near his home in Baku as he was on his way to the airport. Following his detention, police conducted a raid on Abzas Media’s office and the journalist’s apartment and alleged to have found 40,000 EUR in cash in the office hallway. During the search of the media outlet’s office, Hasanli’s colleagues noticed visible signs of physical abuse on his body, including a red scar under one of his eyes. Hasanli told his colleagues that he had been punched in the eye when he was first  detained and later subjected to additional ill-treatment after being taken to Baku City Police Headquarters. As documented in a recording published by Abzas Media, the journalist also told his colleagues that he is certain that the money allegedly found in the outlet’s office was planted by police and that the interrogations of him at the police station focused on the outlet’s investigations into corruption. This indicates that the real reason for Hasanli’s arrest was Abzas Media’s work, through which it has exposed the involvement of high-level officials and President Aliyev’s family and close associates in corrupt dealings.

The day after Hasanli’s detention, on 21 November 2023, Abzas Media’s Editor-in-Chief, Sevinc Vaqifqizi, was also detained by police upon her arrival from Istanbul to Baku airport. Witnesses on the plane she arrived on reported that she was taken into custody directly from the plane before entering the airport.

Khatai District Court ordered the pre-trial detention of Hasanli and Vaqifqizi for four months on charges of unlawfully bringing money into the country under Article 206.3.2 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code. If found guilty, they could face a sentence of up to eight years in prison.

In another alarming development, on 20 November 2023, police officers in civilian clothes forcibly detained journalist-activist Mahammad Kekalov, who cooperates with Abzas Media, during a search of his home in Baku. The police reportedly did not introduce themselves and did not inform Kekalov’s family about the reasons for his detention, while confiscating personal belongings of the activist, including his computer. Kekalov was subsequently taken away in an unknown direction and his whereabouts were unknown for two days. On 22 November, the police finally confirmed his detention and stated that he also has been charged under Article 206.3.2 of the Criminal Code and is accused of colluding with Hasanli and Vaqifqizi on smuggling. Kekalov was reportedly been provided with a state-appointed lawyer, while a lawyer engaged by his family has not been allowed to meet him. There are unconfirmed allegations that he has been subjected to ill-treatment in detention. At the time of writing, it is not clear if a court hearing sanctioning his pre-trial detention has been held.

Abzas Media, founded in 2016, is known for its independent coverage of developments in Azerbaijan and for its investigations into government corruption. In summer 2023, the outlet provided  extensive coverage of environmental protests in the village of Soyudlu. 

Absaz media and its journalists have previously faced intimidation and harassment because of their work. For example, in June 2023, Ulvi Hasanli was questioned by police over a Facebook post concerning the detention of environmental protest participants, and the following month he was briefly detained when filming a flash mob organized by feminist activists. The outlet’s website has been blocked in Azerbaijan and has been the target of numerous denial-of-service attacks (DDoS).

The media space in Azerbaijan is highly restrictive, with media outlets being subjected to excessive government control and outspoken journalists facing ongoing intimidation and harassment. Recent months have seen several other new cases of arrests of government critics, including of prominent activist and academic Gubad Ibadoghlu in July 2023 and anti-war activists in September 2023. According to the Union for the Freedom of Political Prisoners of Azerbaijan, at least 19 journalists and bloggers, human rights defenders and opposition members are currently behind bars on politically motivated grounds in the country.

Both human rights and media groups and representatives of the international community have criticised the detention of Ulvi Hasanli and his colleagues. For example, members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called it ‘’another example of a crackdown by the Azerbaijani authorities against journalists and human rights defenders, or indeed anyone who does not stick to the government script, which cannot be accepted in a Council of Europe member state.’’

Based on the above, IPHR calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to:

  • Immediately release Abzas Media Director Ulvi Hasanli, Editor-in-Chief Sevinc Vaqifqizi and associate Mahammed Kekalov.
  • As long as they remain behind bars, grant them unhindered access to lawyers of their own choice and contacts with their family.
  • Carry out prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into the allegations of ill-treatment against Hasanli and Kekalov, as well as the reported abduction of the latter and hold those responsible for violations accountable.
  • Cease the use of criminal prosecution as a tool to suppress critical reporting, allow independent media outlets to operate without pressure and uphold their international obligations to respect freedom of expression and the media.

We also call on Azerbaijan’s international partners, who have not yet done so, to speak out against the actions taken against Abzas Media’s representatives and demand their release.

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