Azerbaijani Police Raid Toplum TV and Democracy Group, Detaining 7

Опубликовано: 07 Март 2024

toplum tv office sealed - Ulviyya Ali Police sealed the office of Toplum Tv after the raid. (Photo: Ulviyya Ali)

On Wednesday, police in Azerbaijan arrested a dozen journalists and activists amidst the government’s ongoing crackdown on civil society. Seven of those arrested remain in custody a day later.

At about 4:30 pm Wednesday, police raided the office of independent media outlet Toplum TV and arrested its journalists on accusations of smuggling, which carries a sentence of five to eight years in prison. Those arrested were taken to the police station.

While about half were released several hours later, journalists Ali Zeynal, Farid Ismayilov, Mushfig Jabbar, Elmir Abbasov, Ramil Babayev and Ilkin Akhmedov remain in custody.

Police subsequently searched the office of a political organization called Third Republic Platform, established in December by a group of local democracy activists. Akif Gurbanov, who heads the organization’s board, was arrested on the same smuggling charges and also remains in custody.

Toplum TV’s newsroom was sealed, its Instagram account was taken down, and its YouTube channel was renamed and 5,000 videos were deleted.

Police continued their search in the apartment of arrested journalist Farid Ismayilov.

According to Zibeyda Sadigova, the lawyer representing Ismayilov, police claimed to have found 3,100 euros in cash in his apartment. Ismayilov denies that the money is his.

The journalist’s mother, Malahat Ismayilova, told reporters she doesn’t believe that the money belongs to her son.

“Recently he had an operation, and while he was at the hospital I went to take over his personal belongings, and he had just 2.50 manats (US$1.47) in his pocket,” Ismayilova said. “Just go and take a look at our living place, it is almost falling over.”

According to Sadigova, the police tried to force her client to sign some papers, but he refused. She expressed concern over Ismayilov’s health.

“He had a nose operation in November. In December, he underwent a lung operation,” Sadigova told journalists. “He is still under medical supervision. So we are worried.”

Police also searched activist Akif Gurbanov’s apartment.

Gurbanov’s lawyer, Shahla Humbatova, said that police claimed to have discovered 30,000 euros at Third Republic Platform’s office, but Gurbanov denies that it belongs to the platform or to him personally.

According to Humbatova, police took personal documents from Gurbanov’s house and refused to allow Humbatova to be present during the search.

“They didn't open the door,” she told reporters. “They asked me to leave. When I protested, they forcibly removed me.”

Khadija Ismayilova, editor in chief of Toplum TV,  told journalists that the media outlet had never done anything illegal.

“[The criminal case] is completely fictitious,” she said. “The sole purpose is to shut down one of the few platforms available in the country for voicing critical opinions.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said at a March 6 briefing that Washington is “deeply troubled” by Baku’s reported actions against the journalists and activists.

“We call on Azerbaijan to end the harassment of those exercising their fundamental freedoms, and urge the release of all individuals being unjustly held in politically motivated cases,” Miller said. “No one should face incarceration or other retribution for exercising freedom of expression."

In a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), Freedom House denounced the move by the regime of President Ilham Aliyev, calling  the crackdown “the Aliyev regime’s latest unacceptable attack on critical, independent voices in the country.”

“We will continue to closely monitor the Aliyev regime's campaign against civil society, activists, and independent media, and we urge democratic governments to hold the regime accountable for this wave of repression,” they wrote.

Authorities have targeted other independent news outlets in recent months.

In November 2023, Ulvi Hasanli, the executive director of Abzas Media, was arrested. Following his arrest, police searched the Abzas office and Hasanli’s home. According to his lawyer, police claimed to have found 40,000 euros (US$43,585) in the office.

Following the search, a criminal investigation into smuggling was opened against the Abzas Media team. Six of its employees are currently in pre-trial detention.

Aziz Orujov, the director of independent YouTube news channel Kanal 13, was detained on Nov. 29 and remains in custody. 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.