On Monday, November 20, as IPI reported, authorities in Azerbaijan detained Ulvi Hasanli, the director of independent online outlet Abzas Media. Soon after, Abzas Media’s editor-in-chief, Sevinc Vaqifqizi, was arrested.
Mahammad Kekalov, an activist who had published for the outlet, was detained on Wednesday. All three were placed in pre-trial detention for a period of four months following a search at the office of Abzas Media, as a result of which authorities accused the journalists of smuggling foreign currency into Azerbaijan. The charges are based on the sole fact that police reportedly found 40.000 EUR in cash at Abzas Media’s office.
IPI sees these actions as a clear attack on press freedom, and part of a wider attempt to intimidate Azerbaijani journalists into staying silent. The arrests came after Abzas Media published investigations into cases of high-level corruption, some of which were linked to construction contracts in the region of Karabakh, which Azerbaijan has recently taken control of.
Given the severity of the situation, IPI today sent a letter to the Prosecutor-General of Azerbaijan as well as the Chief of the Baku City Main Police Department, who are directly responsible for the arrest of the journalists and have the power to terminate their cases and release them from prison.
The full text of the letter sent today can be found below.
Dear Prosecutor General Aliyev,
Dear Major-General Ismailov,
The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, journalists, and publishers for media freedom, is writing to you to express our strong concern over the recent detention and opening of criminal proceedings against journalists Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vaqifqizi and Mahammad Kekalov, the director, editor-in-chief and a journalist working for Abzas Media, respectively.
Based on the circumstances of this case, we are seriously concerned that these journalists are being held in response to their journalistic work. We are writing to urge you to ensure their immediate release and to request a detailed justification of the reasons for their detention.
According to the information we have gathered, Ulvi Hasanli was detained without charge at Baku airport on November 20. No reason was provided for his detention. After this, also without providing a reason, authorities conducted a search at Abzas Media’s office, which represents a serious incursion into media organizations’ right to protect their work and sources. During this search, police claim to have found 40.000 EUR in cash. Following this event, Vaqifqizi flew back to Azerbaijan, where she was also detained soon after her aeroplane landed at Baku airport.
Lawyers representing Hasanli and Vaqifqizi have said that both journalists were subsequently accused under Article 206.3.2 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan for allegedly illegally bringing foreign currency into Azerbaijan. Police later confirmed that Kekalov too had been detained in relation to the same criminal case.
We are also informed that during his detention in the Baku City Main Police Department, Mr Ulvi Hasanli was seriously mistreated. Journalist Khayala Agayeva’s phone was also reportedly taken by plainclothes officers on Tuesday. She says the device was returned to her only on Wednesday evening.
In addition to this, we have learned that prison authorities have forbidden Hasanli, Vaqifqizi and Kekalov from receiving visits and phone calls from their friends and relatives, which represents a serious violation of the imprisoned journalists’ rights.
Based on this sequence of events, that no information was provided during their detention and the fact that the journalists are determined that they did not have 40.000 Euro in cash in their offices, we are convinced that all three journalists are held on charges with questionable merit and determined ex post facto. Moreover, these specific accusations do not, in any event, justify the continued detention of the journalists in question, much less a pre-trial detention period of four months as ordered by the Xatai District Court in Baku on Tuesday.
Abzas Media has an international reputation as a professional, objective, and trusted media resource reporting on important topics of interest to the Azerbaijani public. In particular, over the past few months, the website has published reports on cases of high-level corruption in Azerbaijan. The arrest of journalists following these publications raises inevitable concern that Hasanli and Vaqifqizi are being held in relation to their journalistic work.
On the basis of the above, we ask you, Mr. Prosecutor-General and Mr. Major-General, Head of the Baku City Main Police Department, to take these cases under your personal control and ensure that Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vaqifqizi and Mahammad Kekalov are immediately released. We kindly ask you to provide a detailed explanation of what led to the decision to arrest the three journalists and search the office of Abzas Media, and later the decision to charge them. This information has to be provided to their legal representatives. The serious allegations of mistreatment of Mr Hasanli as well as the confiscation of Ms Agayeva’s phone need to be urgently and independently investigated. We urge your offices to ensure that any unfounded charges against all three journalists are dropped without delay.