fbpx

Azerbaijan charges journalists and activists following Toplum TV raid

7 March 2024
Police outside the Toplum TV offices. Photo: BBC Azerbaijan

Three journalists and four pro-democracy activists remain in detention in Azerbaijan following a raid on independent media outlet Toplum TV and a political organisation on Wednesday. 

On Wednesday, police raided the offices of Toplum TV as well as the shared office of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives (IDI) and the Third Republican Platform, the latter an opposition political grouping formed in December 2023. 

The raid on Toplum TV represents the latest in a new crackdown in Azerbaijan on what remained of the free press in the country, which began in November 2023 with a raid on the offices of AbzasMedia. 

On Wednesday night, Toplum TV’s YouTube channel appeared to have been taken over, with the name of the channel changed and all of their videos removed. The channel’s Instagram was also taken down. 

Police reportedly detained all staff of the media outlet that were present in the office, a total of 18 people, and a number of employees of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives. The flats of three journalists and two employees of the IDI were raided by police on the same day. 

While the majority of those detained were released later on Wednesday night, seven remain under arrest on charges of smuggling foreign currency. The same charges were levied against five media workers associated with AbzasMedia in November and December, all of whom remain in pre-trial detention. 

Zibeyda Sadigova, a lawyer representing one of those detained, stated that several of the detainees were beaten by police.

Advertisements

Akif Gurbanov, the head of the IDI and the Third Republican Platform, was amongst those detained. His flat was raided by police following the search of the Toplum TV offices. 

According to his lawyer, Shahla Humbatova, Gurbanov is facing charges of smuggling foreign currency as part of a group, punishable with five to eight years of imprisonment. Humbatova added that police had seized €30,000 from Gurbanov’s flat, along with documents. Gurbanov denies all charges against him, and has stated via his lawyer that the money was planted by police.  

Ali Zeynal, Ramil Babayev, and Ilkin Akhmedov, all members of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives, and journalists Mushfig Jabbar, Elmir Abbasov, and Farid Ismailov were detained on the same charges. Zeynal’s flat was also raided on Wednesday evening, with his family claiming that police seized ₼120,000 ($71,000) from his home. 

While official reports claimed that Jabbar was detained at the Toplum TV office, his wife, Narmina Jabbar, told OC Media that Jabbar was arrested while on his way to work, and then taken to his flat, where a search was conducted. She added that police appeared to have planted an envelope containing cash during the search. 

Ismailov’s mother, Malahat Ismailova, told OC Media that police claimed to have found money in the pocket of an old jacket during their raid on their home. According to Ismailova, Ismailov maintains that neither the money nor the jacket belonged to him. Ismailova added that her son’s salary was sufficiently low that she regularly sent the stipend that she receives as an IDP from Kalbajar, to support Ismailov.

The editor-in-chief of Toplum TV, Khadija Ismayilova, told journalists that the raids appeared to be intended to entirely silence dissent in Azerbaijan. Ismayilova was previously arrested by the Azerbaijani authorities and sentenced in 2015 to seven years in prison on charges widely condemned as politically motivated.

‘It looks like [the authorities] want to fully liquidate independent media in the country to leave no platform for critical opinions’, said Ismayilova. 

‘We have not been involved in any illegal activities. Therefore, there are no legal explanations for what is happening’, she added.

International reactions

A number of politicians and international organisations were swift to condemn the arrests. 

US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller stated the country’s ‘strong objections’ to attempts to ‘intimidate, repress, and punish’ journalists, civil society activists, and opposition figures. 

‘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’, said Miller. 

He added that American officials repeated the points in ‘private diplomatic conversations’ with their Azerbaijani counterparts. 

Freedom House, an international non-governmental organisation condemned the ‘unacceptable attack’ on critical voices in Azerbaijan. 

‘We urge democratic governments to hold the regime accountable for this wave of repression’, they wrote. 

Update: on 8 March, Toplum TV editor-in-chief wrote on Facebook that the money seized from Zeynal's flat amounted to ₼20,000 ($12,000), and that the money belonged to the journalist.