Last week’s arrest in Azerbaijan of Mehman Aliyev, head of the independent Turan Information Agency, and the criminal charges his news outlet faces have renewed concerns about deteriorating media freedom in the country, where at least 11 other journalists are currently behind bars.

Aliyev, who has headed the news agency since its founding in 1990, was taken into custody on Aug. 24 for alleged tax offences and abuse of power relating to the ongoing case against Turan. A court ordered him placed in pre-trial detention for nearly three months.

Turan, which provides news coverage and investigative reporting in Azerbaijani, English and Russian, came under investigation for tax crimes on Aug. 7 and was searched by authorities. The outlet is accused of under-declaring profits from grant agreements since 2014 and faces a fine of over 37,000 manat (approx. €18,300) in back taxes and other charges. The agency warned last week that it would be forced to suspend operations indefinitely, starting tomorrow, as its bank accounts had been blocked.

Local free expression NGO, the Azerbaijani Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), condemned the arrest on Friday, saying it was confident there were “political motives behind it” and that the case was aimed at “eliminating the last independent media outlet” in the country.

Emin Huseynov, IRFS co-founder and CEO, in a statement called Aliyev’s arrest “a blatant example of the authorities’ hatred towards the freedom of speech”. He said he believed the “trumped-up” charges to be an attempt by the government in creating “an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship among the media community to the maximum possible extent”.

The arrest also drew condemnation from the international community, including from the Council of Europe, where Azerbaijan is a member. Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland called on Azerbaijan’s government to “fully abide by its commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights” and “avoid yet another case of unjust deprivation of liberty, which has no place in a democratic society”.

International Press Institute (IPI) Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis echoed that call. Saying that “these charges in no way justify throwing Mr. Aliyev in prison”, he called on authorities to “release him immediately”.

‘Spurious’ Charges

Journalists, bloggers and activists who speak out against the Azerbaijani government and President Ilham Aliyev have often faced imprisonment on charges that international observers have called spurious, including accusations of drug and weapons possession, “hooliganism” and tax evasion. Human rights groups have reported that some of those detained have suffered torture and abuse.

Independent and opposition media outlets also face legal pressure. The case against Turan was preceded by similar cases against Meydan TV for large-scale tax evasion in 2016 and against Azadliq Radio, the Azerbaijan service of Radio Free Europe, for money laundering in 2014.

Worse, violence against journalists has commonly been met with impunity. In two dramatic examples, perpetrators remain at large in the murders of Elmar Huseynov – the founder and editor of opposition news magazine Monitor, who was gunned down in Baku in 2005 in what appeared to be a well-planned attack – and journalist and author Rafiq Taqi, who died in a hospital following a knife attack by an unknown assailant in 2011.

Two years ago, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist working with IRFS, was beaten to death, apparently in response to a Facebook post he made about a football player. Several people were convicted in the case and given prison sentences, but IRFS and others have expressed scepticism about the official account, pointing to Aliyev’s record as a human rights defender and various threats over his reporting before his death.

Amid continuing pressure, several journalists have left the country. One of them, Arzu Geybulla, a columnist and a freelance journalist who in 2014 left Azerbaijan for exile in Turkey after receiving threats for criticizing the government, told IPI that she believed the charges laid out against Mehman Aliyev were a clear sign that Baku was “trying to squeeze out remaining independent voices”.

“This is a blow to media freedom in Azerbaijan,” she said. “It is indicative of repressive media environment in Azerbaijan and shows there is no intention on behalf of the authorities to change its already deteriorating media freedoms record.”

Umud Mirzayev, chair of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Azerbaijan National Committee, characterised Aliyev’s detention as “unacceptable”. He emphasised the significant contribution that Aliyev and Turan had made to Azerbaijan’s media environment and he said the National Committee remained committed to a policy of engagement with the government as it worked to try to secure the release of imprisoned journalists and pressed for objective investigations into their cases.

Numbers Rising

Nevertheless, the number of journalists, bloggers and activists behind bars continues to grow. Mirzayev confirmed to IPI that at least 11 other journalists are currently in prison in Azerbaijan, including:

Afgan Mukhtarli: on May 29, the journalist was allegedly abducted from neighbouring Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and taken to Azerbaijan, where he now faces charges of smuggling and illegal border crossing. IPI has called for Mukhtarli’s immediate release. However, despite Georgian officials’ promises to investigate, the circumstances behind the alleged kidnapping remain unclear. Mukhtarli was reportedly ordered placed in pre-trial detention until at least Oct. 30.

Mehman Huseynov: in March, the photojournalist, blogger, IRFS member and brother of Emin Huseynov was sentenced to two years in prison for libel after claiming to have been mistreated in police custody. IPI condemned the sentence as an attempt to discourage journalists from raising allegations of official misconduct.

Abdul Abilov: the opposition blogger was given a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence for drug possession on May 27, 2014.

Nijat Aliyev: the editor-in-chief of the news website Azadxeber was imprisoned in May 2012 on drug-related charges. Additional charges were later brought in January 2013 for illegal import and sale of religious literature, making calls to overturn the regime, and incitement to ethnic and religious hatred. On Dec. 9, 2013, he was convicted on all charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Araz Guliyev: the chief editor of news website Xeber 44 was arrested on hooliganism charges in September 2012 while reporting on a protest in the southern city of Masalli. The case was later expanded to include charges of illegal possession of firearms, disrupting public order, inciting ethnic and religious hatred, resisting authority and offensive action against the flag and emblem of Azerbaijan. In April 2013 he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Rashad Ramazanov: the writer and blogger was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug-related crimes in 2013. In February, PEN International expressed concern for his health, noting that he had lost weight while being held in solitary confinement and claiming that he was denied access to adequate medical treatment.

Seymur Hazi: the journalist with opposition newspaper Azadliq and member of the Popular Front (APFP) opposition party was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2015 after having been jailed on hooliganism charges in August 2014.

Fikret Faramazoglu: the chief editor of the Journalistic Research Center news website was sentenced in June to seven years in prison for extortion. He previously received a one-year suspended prison sentence for libel in 2006 while working as chief editor of the opposition weekly 24 Saat.

Faig Amirli: on July 24, the executive director of Azadliq newspaper was sentenced to three years and three months of imprisonment on charges of inciting religious hatred and tax evasion.

Javid Shiraliyev: the founder and editor-in-chief of the news portal was sentenced on May 22, 2016 to five years in prison for extortion.

Aziz Orujov: the executive director of online television Channel-13 was put under administrative arrest for a month in May on charges of disobeying the police. Authorities subsequently continued to hold him for new criminal charges of illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power.