Baku/24.11.23/Turan: Freedom Now strongly condemns the detention of journalist Ulvi Hasanli, director of the independent Azerbaijani media outlet Abzas Media, and Sevinc Vagifgizi, editor at the outlet.

Freedom Now is also extremely concerned about the wellbeing of Mahammad Kekalov, who was detained around the same time by unidentified plainclothed officials, is also affiliated with Abzas Media, and whose whereabouts are unknown. We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to immediately release them from detention and to drop all charges.

Hasanli is the founder and director of Abzas Media, while Vagifgizi serves as editor of the outlet and Kekalov as a project manager. Abzas Media is one of the few independent media outlets operating in Azerbaijan. According to local reports, Hasanli was arrested in the early morning hours of November 20, 2023 as he was en route to the airport. He was held incommunicado for several hours before authorities confirmed his detention.

Reports indicate that Vagifgizi was detained early the next day upon her arrival from abroad at Baku airport. Kekalov’s family reported that when he was taken away officials also confiscated a computer and other items from the home. Police searched Hasanli’s, Vagifgizi’s, and Kekalov’s homes along with the office of Abzas Media. At the office police supposedly found 40,000 Euro, a claim used to substantiate charges against Hasamli and Vagifizi for conspiracy to smuggle foreign currency under Criminal Code Article 206.3.2.

Nearly 2 days after Kekalov’s detention a Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson confirmed that he is being held by the authorities on unspecified charges. Kekalov’s family also learned that, unbeknownst to them, he was assigned a different lawyer. The lawyer hired by Kekalov’s family remains unable to communicate with or see her client.

The detentions are likely related to Abzas Media’s investigative journalism regarding government corruption. The government has previously tried to interfere with Abzas Media’s work. Hasanli was briefly detained in July 2023 when he attempted to film a flash mob of women activists protesting against the government’s violent reaction to an earlier protest.

The previous month he was questioned by police over a Facebook post which included pictures of two police officers responsible for detaining journalists covering an environmental protest. Vagifgizi has also been persecuted for her work, including by being targeted with the Pegasus spyware program. Moreover, the outlet’s website is banned in Azerbaijan, and the authorities have for several years sought to block various websites and mirrors used by the outlet.

Despite constitutional protection for freedom of expression, the media climate in Azerbaijan is extremely restrictive, forcing independent journalists and bloggers to self-censor or otherwise face reprisal from the government. According to local groups, as of October 2023, at least six journalists are currently imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Pro-government ruling elites exercise near-total control of traditional media outlets such as television, radio, and newspapers. In December 2021, Azerbaijan adopted a new Law on Media which gave the authorities the power to harshly penalize the media and journalists on little grounds. The new law requires media outlets to be registered and owned by Azerbaijanian citizens permanently living in the country, and imposes requirements on the minimum number of daily stories outlets must produce. Journalists must also register with the government and meet other steep requirements.  The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission criticized the new law for failing to uphold international standards of freedom of expression, noting that the law has “a problematic focus on restricting the activities of the media.”

The arrest of Hasanli, Vagifgizi, and Kekalov is yet another instance of recent politically motivated detentions in Azerbaijan. In July 2023, Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu, an economist and activist who criticized the government’s corruption and hydrocarbon policies, was arrested on false charges. Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a pro-democracy activist, has been in pre-trial detention since December 2022 pending an investigation on trumped-up charges of hooliganism and contempt of court. More recently, several peaceful anti-war activists were subjected to arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment. -0-

 

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