Azerbaijani Authorities Detain 2nd Editor on Smuggling Charges

Published: 21 November 2023

Azerbaijan Sevinc1Abzas Media’s editor in chief, Sevinj Vaqifqizi. (Photo: Ferqane Novruzova)

By Fatima Karimova

Early Tuesday morning Azerbaijani authorities detained Sevinj Vaqifqizi, the editor-in-chief of Abzas Media, at Baku airport as she was returning to the country. The previous day, Abzas director Ulvi Hasanli had been detained on the same charge of smuggling foreign currency.

The court placed Hasanli in pre-trial detention for four months, while ordering Vaqifqizi held for 3 months and 29 days.

According to activists who were on the same flight with Vaqifqizi, she was detained immediately upon arrival.

Police didn’t allow Vaqifqizi to pass passport control, taking her directly to the Baku City Police Department. She and her lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, subsequently accompanied the officers as they searched her apartment.

When she was at the airport waiting for her flight to Baku, her friends made a video that showed her talking with another friend, who urged her not to return to Azerbaijan.

“I couldn’t bear to live abroad, while Ulvi [Hasanli] is in jail. It would be like living in jail for me. I would rather die in Azerbaijan, instead of having a heart attack in Paris,” she said.

On Monday, following Hasanli’s arrest, the office of the news website and Hasanli’s home were searched by police. According to his lawyer, police reported they found 40 thousand euros in the office. Abzas Media’s recent stories have focused on businesses owned by family members of the country's top officials.

At the same time, disability rights activist Mahammad Kekalov was also detained at his apartment, according to his family members. Since then his whereabouts are unknown.

According to a post on X (formerly Twitter) by human rights defender Samad Rahimli,  Kekalov’s lawyer contacted the Ombudsman Office to find out where he is. Police would only say he was not at the police department.

“The Ombudsperson's Office verbally has responded to the inquiry of a lawyer about the whereabouts of M. Kekalov. According to the response, currently the Ombudsperson's Office is unable to identify the place of detention and the Baku City General Police Department dismisses [the idea] that Kekalov is held there,” Rahimli wrote.

Commenting on Hasanli’s arrest, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State Matthew Miller told Turan News Agency’s Washington correspondent that the U.S. is “deeply troubled by the arrest of journalists.”

“We urge the Azerbaijani government to protect the rights and freedoms of all, including freedom of expression,” Miller stated.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global press freedom watchdog, also urged Azerbaijan to release Hasanli and allow the country’s “beleaguered independent media to work freely.”

Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, CPJ’s advocacy and communications director, said in New York that “the raid on the offices of Abzas Media, one of the few domestic Azerbaijani media outlets that still dares to investigate official corruption, and the arrest of its director Ulvi Hasanli, appear to be in retaliation for the outlet’s pioneering journalism.”

Azerbaijani authorities, Kaiser said, “should immediately release Hasanli and end their harassment of Abzas Media.”