Wave of Journalist Arrests Continues in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani police on Thursday arrested journalist Nargiz Absalamova of Abzas Media, on charges of smuggling foreign currency. The arrest comes amidst the new crackdown in the country on independent media funded by U.S. and EU organizations.

Nargiz AbsalamovaNargiz Absalamova (Photo: Ülviyyə Əli, Maydan.tv)Absalamova was arrested after she reported to the police for questioning. An employee of the Press Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, İbrahim Amiraslanli, later confirmed Absalamova’s detention to the pro-government news agency APA, adding that an investigation is currently underway.

This was Absalamova’s second invitation to the police station. She was summoned earlier, along with fellow Abzas reporters Mina Alyarli, Elnara Gasimova, and others, to testify as witnesses about the outlet's financial sources, as well as its administrative and editorial leadership.

The crackdown on independent media in Azerbaijan started on November 20 with the detention of Ulvi Hasanli, the founder and executive director of Abzas Media.

Following his arrest, police searched the office of the news website and Hasanli’s home. According to his lawyer, police claimed to have found 40,000 euros (US$43,585) in the office.

Abzas Media’s recent stories have focused on businesses owned by family members of the country's top officials.

The following day, editor-in-chief Sevinj Vagifqizi was detained as her plane landed when she returned to Baku from a trip abroad.

Hasanli was placed in pre-trial detention for four months, while Vagifqizi received three months and 29 days. Both face charges of “smuggling foreign currency.”

Deputy director of Abzas Media Mahammad Kekalov was also detained on the same charges. A court placed him in pre-trial detention for three months and 27 days. If proven guilty, all four could be sentenced to eight years in prison.

The crackdown has not only affected Abzas Media. On November 29, Aziz Orujov, the director of independent YouTube news channel Kanal 13, was detained and given three months pre-trial detention. Orujov stands accused of unauthorized construction on land without ownership, use, or lease rights. If he is found guilty, he could be sent to prison for up to three years.

Recently, pro-government Azerbaijani media has published accusations against U.S. and EU donor organizations, focusing particularly on USAID, accusing it of running illegally financed political influence campaigns in the countries where it operates.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the interim heads of the U.S. and German diplomatic missions as well as the French ambassador to answer the accusations of illegal financing.

"Such accusations about USAID aid projects are false and fundamentally mischaracterize the purpose of our aid,” the U.S. State Department told Turan News Agency. “As always, our aid is transparent. All USAID programs promote democratic values aimed at free and peaceful societies.”