VIENNA, 6 October 2015 – Azerbaijan’s government needs to end an ongoing campaign of repression against journalists and others, which has led to the detention and investigation of several journalists in recent weeks, the International Press Institute (IPI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) said today.
The past month has seen a surge in the number of journalists detained for questioning by Azerbaijani authorities – including the detention of journalists with connections to Meydan TV and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) – as independent media channels that provide alternative narratives to state-run news outlets have been increasingly targeted.
On Sept. 26, Baku police ransacked RFE/RL contributor Islam Shikhali’s apartment and he was questioned by prosecutors two days later. The detention followed that of 19-year-old Meydan TV contributor Shirin Abbasov, who on Sept. 17 was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention for allegedly disobeying police.
Abbasov disappeared on Sept. 16 on his way to university and spent 30 hours in custody before he was sentenced to administrative detention. His family was not informed of his whereabouts until a day after he was taken into custody and he has been held incommunicado and without access to a lawyer since his detention. He reportedly is being held at the Interior Ministry’s Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, although it remains unclear why he is incarcerated at that particular division.
IPI and SEEMO said that the developments were the latest in a sustained crackdown on dissident voices in Azerbaijan that has increasingly worsened in recent years.
“Far too many journalists and human rights defenders have been detained in Azerbaijan on charges that often do not stand up to scrutiny,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “We call on the government to release all prisoners behind bars for exercising fundamental human rights and we urge the international community to make clear to Azerbaijan’s government that this situation is unacceptable.”
Within just three days last month, from Sept. 16 to 19, Azerbaijani authorities reportedly detained six journalists. Police detained freelance reporter Aytaj Akhmedova and her intern, both of whom work with Meydan TV, for five hours of questioning on Sept. 16.
Abbasov was sentenced the following day and on Sept. 18 freelance photojournalist Ahmed Mukhtar, whose brother works for Meydan TV, was detained and questioned. The next day three other journalists – Ayten Farhadova, Sevinj Vagifgizi and Izolda Agaeva – with connections to Meydan TV, were detained upon their arrival at the Baku airport and transported to the police station.
Although most of the journalists were released after hours of questioning, the justifications for holding and questioning them were dubious. A warrant used to justify the Sept. 26 search of Shikhali’s apartment cited suspicion of tax evasion, one of the same charges brought against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova before she was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on Sept. 1. Supporters of Ismayilova, also a reporter at RFE/RL, maintain that the charges against her came in retaliation for her work in unveiling corruption by government officials.