Azerbaijani police have detained the editor-in-chief of AbzasMedia along with another person who has worked with the outlet as part of an ongoing crackdown on the outlet.
Editor-in-chief Sevinj Vagifgizi was detained in the early hours of Tuesday upon her return to Azerbaijan from Brussels, while Mahammad Kekalov, a disability rights activist and adaptive fashion designer who has worked with AbzasMedia, was detained on Monday.
Vagifgizi’s arrest came a day after police raided AbzasMedia’s offices and detained their director, Ulvi Hasanli.
On Tuesday evening, Hasanli and Vagifgizi were sentenced to four months of pre-trial detention by a Baku court on charges of smuggling foreign currency into Azerbaijan.
If found guilty, they face up to eight years in prison. Both journalists deny the charges and maintain that their arrests relate to their journalistic work.
Islam Shikhali, an Azerbaijani journalist, told OC Media that Vagifgizi was detained at around 03:30 on Tuesday morning, and was escorted to her home in Baku by the police, who then proceeded to conduct a search of her house.
Both Hasanli and Vagifgizi were charged with smuggling as part of an organised group, after the police allegedly found €40,000 ($44,000) while raiding AbzasMedia’s offices.
The outlet has accused the authorities of planting the money in order to falsify charges against Hasanli, a tactic they have previously been accused of using.
AbzasMedia is known for its investigative reports, including on the Aliyev family’s business dealings, as well as alleged corruption in the reconstruction efforts undertaken in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2020.
Mahammad Kekalov was reportedly detained in his home by plainclothes police officers, who confiscated his personal belongings, including his computer.
His lawyer, Rovshana Rahimli, told OC Media on Tuesday that she still did not know why or even where he was being held.
‘I have applied to several state agencies, the Baku City Chief Police Department, the Human Rights Commissioner’s Office, and other institutions’, she said. ‘The Human Rights Commissioner’s Office said that they would make appropriate inquiries and contact us again’.
‘A legal absurdity’
The crackdown on AbzasMedia has drawn criticism from journalists and activists in Azerbaijan, some of whom viewed it as a ‘theatrical performance’ and an extension of Baku’s encroachment on freedom of speech and the press.
Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil argued that the arrests were a ‘legal absurdity’ and a ‘manifestation of the weakness of the country’s leadership’.
‘The government as always smeared its own ugliness on its face; they couldn’t do anything, neither to be honest nor to tolerate the truth when their dishonesty is exposed’, she said. ‘Two young journalists upset the army of corrupt officials, including the president.’
Later on Tuesday, a group of Azerbaijani journalists and activists issued a joint statement condemning the arrest of AbzasMedia’s editor-in-chief and director as part of Baku’s ‘relentless repression’ of freedom of speech.
‘The crackdown on AbzasMedia […] is an expression of the brutal attitude of the political system towards the free press. We believe that the responsibility for all these repressions rests with President Ilham Aliyev, who unequivocally said “the media is free” in Azerbaijan at international events’.
A number of international organisations also condemned the arrests and called for the release of Hasanli and his colleagues, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Press Institute.
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This article was amended to include the sentencing of Vagifgizi and Hasanli on 21 November 2023.