Azerbaijani authorities have been accused of pressuring the families of relatives of the imprisoned members of staff of AbzasMedia by keeping their bank accounts frozen, cutting access to state benefits, and barring them from leaving the country.
The director, editor-in-chief, deputy director, and two journalists from AbzasMedia — one of the only remaining independent news sources in the country — were arrested in November on charges of smuggling foreign currency.
Hafiz Babali, a journalist associated with AbzasMedia who was detained in December, told Voice of America that the Khatai District Court froze the bank accounts and state benefits of several of the detained AbzasMedia journalists’ relatives.
The detained AbzasMedia staff appealed against the restrictions imposed on their relatives on 20 December in the Baku Court of Appeal, calling the Khatai District Court’s move to freeze their bank accounts illegal and groundless.
During the trial on 25 December Ofelya Maharramova, the mother of editor-in-chief Sevinj Vagifgizi, said that her disability benefits, which she had received due to serious health issues, had been withheld with no reason given.
‘I have also lost my husband, I am a sick person. Those who blocked my benefits card don’t think about how a person has to make a living’, said Maharramova.
Ulvi Hasanli’s sister, Sadagat Hasanova, also had her salary blocked by the court.
The Khatai Court also froze the pension of AbzasMedia director Ulvi Hasanli’s mother, Esvira Musayeva.
Hafiz Babali, who is presumed to have been detained for his work with AbzasMedia, also said that the authorities had blocked his disability benefits, which he receives due to his partial blindness. Babali added that the detained journalists were being ‘punished’ for investigations into businesses run by Aliyev’s family and the assets of the head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service, Ali Nagiyev.
In her turn, Vagifgizi said during the trial that Azerbaijan’s authorities were not treating its citizens fairly.
Judges presiding over the court reportedly interrupted the journalists as they were making their cases.
‘No legal basis’
Zibeyda Sadigova, a lawyer representing AbzasMedia, told journalists that the Court of Appeals’ decision could not be appealed any further.
‘Since the Court of Appeal did not grant the motion submitted to the court related to the block placed on the bank accounts, the only approach is to apply to the European Court [of Human Rights]. After receiving the appellate court’s decision, an appeal will be sent to the European Court’, said Sadigova.
She stated that the authorities could only freeze bank accounts in light of ‘reasonable suspicions’ regarding the provenance of the funds.
‘Money is transferred from the state budget to pension cards. The source of the money is known: it is the state that sends the money to the accounts. Why should they be frozen?’, said Sadigova.
Tural Aghayev, an independent lawyer and human rights defender observing the case, told OC Media that the authorities could only take steps as restrictive as freezing assets in ‘exceptional cases’.
‘Law enforcement agencies or the court can take such a restrictive step in exceptional cases and only in relation to the accused or the persons on whom property liability can be imposed, provided that the step to be taken is strictly justified, and [they] must show with evidence how the seizure of bank accounts relates to public interests.
Emin Abbasov, an Azerbaijani lawyer, also argued that there was no legal basis for the asset freeze.
‘Seizure of property should be based only on the materials collected in the relevant criminal case’, Abbasov told OC Media.‘It is impossible to prove that the property of the accused’s relatives formed on the basis of pension is related to the criminal case under investigation.’
A representative of Reporters Without Borders told OC Media that AbzasMedia journalists and their families were facing persecution in relation to AbzasMedia’s work.
‘The pressure on their families is abject and reveals the nature of Ilham Aliev’s regime, which uses all its power to silence independent voices, especially those who publish about the corruption within the presidential circle’, said the representative.
They additionally called on the Council of Europe to ‘remind President Aliyev’s government of its commitments, and to make it release all the journalists’.