Azerbaijan News Director Freed, Still Under House Arrest

 In a surprise move, Azerbaijani authorities released on Monday 16 people from custody, including the director of the only independent news agency in the country and an Israeli blogger.

800px-Закир ГасановAli Hasanov (Photo: Ali Akberov, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Baku court released the head of the Turan News Agency, Mehman Aliyev, from pretrial detention but put him under house arrest until his trial.

Aliyev was arrested on August 25 and charged with illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of power. A week later his news agency suspended operations.

Human rights groups have said that Aliyev's charges and detention are politically motivated and part of the regime’s crackdown on independent media, political opponents and anyone who criticizes the regime.

President Ilham Aliyev’s advisor, Ali Hasanov, told the Azerbaijan State News Agency that the President instructed law enforcement agencies to consider Mehman Aliyev's request to be released.

Outside the courtroom, Mehman Aliyev told reporters that he and his news agency are “actively cooperating" with the government's tax case investigation.

"We submitted all necessary documents and the process is ongoing," he said. "I think the real situation will become known and this case will be closed."

Mehman Aliyev said he had appealed to the President, mentioned in his letter Turan's 30 years-long role in independent and reliable journalism and asked to be put under house arrest.

The court also gave early release to 14 people who have been in custody since a 2015 clash between security forces and residents in the village of Nardaran, near Baku, that left four residents and two police officers dead. More than 100 people were detained and some still remain in prison.

Hasanov also said that President Aliyev has pardoned Alexander Lapshin, an Israeli blogger who was extradited from Belarus on February 7.

Azerbaijan accused him of illegally crossing a border because of several visits to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh now controlled by Armenia.

Lapshin was sentenced to three years in an Azerbaijan prison. His release has not been finalized.