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Mehman Aliyev, the head of independent Baku-based news outlet the Turan Information Agency, was arrested on 24 August for ‘tax evasion’ and ‘abuse of power’, according to the agency.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Taxes initiated criminal proceedings against the agency on 7 August and froze their accounts a few days later.
Aliyev’s lawyer Fuad Aghayev said his client’s detention was illegal. International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders have called the charges against Aliyev and Turan ‘trumped-up’.
According to Turan, Aliyev was summoned to the ministry for questioning, where he was then arrested and taken to Baku’s Yasamal District Police Station.
A Baku court will decide on 25 August whether to grant him bail.
Two hours before he was detained, Aliyev told Caucasian Knot that Turan may be forced to close due to pressure from the authorities.
The ministry raided Turan’s offices on 16 August, seizing financial records, and personal data of journalists, Caucasian Knot reported.
Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders, said on 25 August that Aliyev is one of the pioneers of journalism in the country, whose ‘only crime is to have headed the country’s last independent media outlet’.
Turan Information Agency have in the past resisted government censorship. In an interview with OC Media back in July, Aliyev criticised a government scheme to give free flats to journalists, saying it’s aim was to ‘silence the media and control it’.
International media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned Aliyev’s arrest, calling on the authorities to immediately release him.
‘Azerbaijan must stop this politically motivated persecution of Mehman Aliyev and the Turan news agency’, the committee’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. ‘[The] authorities have systematically jailed journalists and squeezed out independent media outlets by abusing the criminal code’, she added.
Azerbaijan’s media crackdown
On 24 July, the Sabail District Court sentenced Faig Amirli to, financial director of Azerbaijani newspaper Azadlig and an assistant to the chair of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, guilty of tax evasion and abuse of power. Amirli, who denies the charges, was sentenced to three years and three months in prison and fined ₼39,000 ($23,000).
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.