Journalists arrested as state media signal hunt for “US spies”
In the second half of November, the Azerbaijani security forces launched a campaign that may eliminate the last remnants of independent media in the country.
On November 20, Azerbaijani police arrested two top managers of an independent news outlet, Abzas Media, known for investigating corruption. Ulvi Hasanli, the director and co-founder of Abzas Media, was arrested on his way to Baku airport for an international flight. Several hours later, Hasanli and his lawyer, Zibeyda Sadigova, were taken to Abzas’ office, and police raided the facility in their presence.
According to Abzas, police claimed to have found 40,000 EUR in the office. The outlet released a voice-recorded statement by Hasanli, who said that the police had planted the cash and that he had been beaten both during his detention and later while in police custody. In his audio-recorded remarks, Hasanli also said police asked him why Abzas does not glorify Azerbaijan’s military takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh and focuses on corruption instead.
Abzas’ editor-in-chief, Sevinj Vagifgizi, was detained the following day. Both Hasanli and Vagifgizi have been charged with smuggling and face possible prison sentences of 7-12 years, according to Abzas. According to Eurasinet, Hasanli has been politically active in Azerbaijan since the mid-2000s, chairing several youth organisations. He co-founded Abzas Media in 2016. Abzas focuses mainly on covering corruption and human rights violations in Azerbaijan—recent investigations unearthed money laundering schemes by high-ranking officials in and abroad.
On November 27, the Sabail District Police Department of Baku detained Aziz Orujov, the head of the oppositional “Kanal 13” Internet TV. Before he was detained, the police searched his house and office. Orujov is a suspect under Article 188.2 of the Criminal Code (violation of the right to ownership, use, or lease of land – carrying out arbitrary construction or installation works on a plot of land without a lease right).
According to lawyer Bahruz Bayramov, Orujov did not accept the charge and said that the charge was aimed at restricting journalistic activity. “Aziz said that almost none of the houses in ‘Area 20’ have documents. There are thousands of undocumented homes out there. Should a criminal case be brought against all of them?” the lawyer mentioned. On November 28, the Sabail District Court of Baku decided to sentence Aziz Orujov to three months of pre-trial detention as a preventive measure.
The following day, Azerbaijan accused the US, France, and Germany of interfering in the country’s internal affairs by funding Abzas Media. Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned French Ambassador Anne Boillon, German Ambassador Ralf Horlemann, and acting US Ambassador Guevara to discuss their countries’ funding of Abzas Media.
According to their statement, during the meetings, the ministry accused the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), US non-profit organisation Freedom Now, and the Danish New Democracy Fund of “illegally transferring financial resources to the territory of Azerbaijan, violating the rules of granting grants, and made illegal contributions to the activities of Abzas Media”.
In response to the summons, the US Embassy in Azerbaijan told Voice of America on November 29 that the accusations against USAID were “false and fundamentally mischaracterise the purpose of our aid”.
On November 30, Azerbaijani police arrested journalist Nargiz Absalamova of Abzas Media on charges of smuggling foreign currency. Absalamova was arrested after she reported to the police for questioning. An employee of the Press Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, İbrahim Amiraslanli, later confirmed Absalamova’s detention to the pro-government news agency APA, adding that an investigation is underway.
Khadija Ismayil, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist, noted that the Azerbaijani government’s criticism of the Western embassies indicated its current allegiances. “Countries that declare the West as enemies are usually in the arms of Russia. Until now, at least, they talked about a balanced foreign policy; now, the rhetoric of the Azerbaijani leadership is no different from that of Lukashenka”, said Ismayil.