The Ministry of Taxes of Azerbaijan has dropped tax penalties for independent news outlet Turan Information Agency four days after moving its head from pretrial detention to house arrest. Rights groups have urged authorities to drop all charges against him.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Taxes opened an investigation into Turan on 7 August, and on 16 August raided their office in Baku, confiscating financial, work, and personal records as well as freezing their accounts. The charges against Turan alleged that the media outlet owed ₼37,000 ($21,400) in taxes for 2014-16.
The Baku department of the Ministry informed the agency on 15 September that it dropped the tax penalties after a tax audit, Turan wrote.
The decision came four days after Mehman Aliyev, the head of the agency, was moved from pretrial detention to house arrest. Charges against him are still pending.
According to Human Rights Watch, the ministry accused Aliyev of failure to register ₼148,310 ($87,268) in grants that Turan received from 2010 to 2014, and for failure to pay ₼60,080 ($35,352) in taxes for the period of 2010 to 2016.
On 11 September, the day Aliyev was allowed to walk free from prison, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir reiterated his hope that Turan ‘would shortly be allowed to continue to work’.
‘We continue to urge the government of Azerbaijan to release all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms’, the US Department of State wrote in their statement on 13 September.
Increased pressure on Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has come under international pressure in the last month over allegations that it paid bribes to a number of high level European and UN politicians in exchange for favourable treatment. An investigation from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and others revealed that Azerbaijani authorities laundered almost $3 billion in the UK between 2012–2014, which was reportedly used to make the illicit payments. The Council of Europe has launched an investigation into the scandal.
Azerbaijani authorities have denied any wrongdoings, instead claiming Hungarian-born American billionaire philanthropist George Soros and ‘Armenian lobby’ were behind the investigation. The government denounced the allegations as ‘groundless, biased, and provocative’.
Several day after the results of OCCRP’s investigation were published, on 15 September, Baku Court of Appeals released Faig Amirli, financial director of Azerbaijani newspaper Azadlig, from custody with a suspended sentence, but did not drop charges against him.
Four days earlier, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an order pardoning blogger Aleksandr Lapshin, who was imprisoned for visiting Nagorno-Karabakh.
For years Azerbaijan has been criticised for its dismal record on media freedom and repression of journalists, the media, and opposition figures by a number of international watchdogs, including Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.
In a recent move, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty filed a case against the Azerbaijani authorities in the European Court of Human Rights about the case involving their local branch, Radio Azadlig, which was raided in 2014 for alleged tax crimes.
The article was amended on 19 September 2017.