From 20 November 2023 through 14 December 2023, five journalists working for the independent online portal AbzasMedia were detained. They face the criminal charge of allegedly smuggling money which entails a lengthy prison sentence. Those detained are editor-in-chief Sevinc Vagifgizi, director Ulvi Hasanli, journalists ​​Nargiz Absalamova and Hafiz Babaly, deputy director and disability rights activist Mahammad Kekalov. AbzasMedia is an independent online media outlet that is widely known for reporting on corruption at the highest level of government. Vagifgizi and Hasanli were at the forefront of these extensive efforts. In April 2023, Hasanli reported about the threats to life and safety, as well as the right to privacy infringements, against Azerbaijani journalists at the joint hearing between three committees of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE Rapporteurs assess his detention as  reprisal for cooperating with the PACE. Babaly is a veteran investigative journalist who used AbzasMedia as a platform for publishing his research. He links his detention to the latest anticorruption investigation implicating the head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service. Kekalov was arrested shortly after return from the EU’s Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum Assembly in Brussels. 

A former policeman, Ilhamiz Guliyev, gave an anonymous whistleblower interview to AzbasMedia  in October 2023. In it, he attested to the widespread practice of the Azerbaijani police planting drugs against government critics. He subsequently faced administration detention for 30 days after police allegedly identified him from a recording AzbasMedia released in which they had distorted Guliyev’s voice. Following his release from administrative detention, he was arrested on 4 December and accused of a drug-related offence – the very same charge he accused the authorities of using to silence critics. 

On 27 November Azerbaijani police detained the founder and director of a popular online television channel Kanal 13, Aziz Orujov. Kanal 13  reports on politics and social issues and provides a platform for human rights defenders. Orujov has been targeted before. According to his lawyers, currently he is selectively accused of a construction without authorisation. The anchor of Kanal 13, Rufat Muradli was arrested on 4 December and sanctioned to 30 days of administrative detention for hooliganism and police disobedience, accusations that his colleagues assess as bogus.

On 11 December, police apprehended Teymur Karimov, the founder and director of the online TV station Kanal 11. He faces extortion charges. Kanal 11 links the detention of Karimov to reporting on issues of corruption and the treatment of military veterans. 

On 14 December media and watchdog groups reported about the detention of social activist Meheddin Orujov and a well-known opposition politician and activist Tofig Yagublu. Meheddin Orujov was released from administrative detention just last month. He served a 30-day administrative sentence after criticising the President of Azerbaijan online. Yagublu has long been the target of the Azerbaijani authorities, wrongfully jailed and ill-treated multiple times. He is now a suspect in a criminal investigation into fraud and forgery of official documents. 

Most of those detained in November and December were ordered to serve 3 to 4 months of pre-trial detention. At the time of releasing this statement, the whereabouts of Meheddin Orujov remain unknown, as well as the grounds for detention of Yagublu. The media and the lawyers report about beatings, threats, ill-treatment and the alleged torture against some of the detainees. Hasanli, Vagifgizi, Absalamova and Kekalov are banned from meeting their families or contacting them by phone. Hasanli is not allowed to communicate with his lawyers by phone.  

The latest wave of crackdown comes against the backdrop of reported 235 political prisoners in jail in Azerbaijan. One of the most recent high-profile political prisoners, an activist, an academic and a politician Gubad Ibadoglu, is denied vital medical care and his health continues to seriously deteriorate.  

Azerbaijan ranks 151 among 180 states on the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. The 2021 media law – criticised by the Council of Europe Venice Commission as incompatible with media freedom – further endangered free press. These latest developments threaten to encroach upon the remaining fragments of the independent media, and eradicate any remaining freedom of expression and civic space in Azerbaijan.  

Azerbaijan is in violation of its international obligations to guarantee basic freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These include the freedom of expression, right to freely receive and impart information, prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, access to lawyer and respect of the right to privacy. The country already lost a significant number of cases at the European Court of Human Rights for systemic assault against civic space, jailing critics for ulterior purposes and infringing the rights of journalists. 

We call upon the Azerbaijani authorities to adhere to their obligations under international law and:

  • Immediately drop the charges and release jailed human rights defenders and journalists;
  • Ensure access to  professional medical assistance for those who remain detained;
  • Allow all detainees to communicate with their family and lawyers, including by phone;
  • Promptly and thoroughly investigate reported cases of alleged ill-treatment and torture against those detained and bring those responsible to account;
  • Allow the free expression of dissenting views and protect the legitimate work of journalists and other civic actors against reprisals; and,
  • End suppression of freedom of expression and create an enabling environment conducive to free civic space.

Top photo: Ulvi Hasanli being detained. Photo: Gulzar Mammadli via OC Media.