Numerous journalists connected to Azerbaijani news site arrested

Azerbaijani police arrest journalist Ulvi Hasanli while he holds up a peace sign. Image courtesy of Global Voices partner OC Media. Used with permission.

This article was originally written by Global Voices South Caucasus and Turkey Editor Arzu Geybullayeva for Azerbaijan Internet Watch (AIW). It has been republished here with permission from the author. 

At least three Azerbaijani journalists and editors have been detained by police this week, including Sevinc Vagifgizi and Ulvi Hasanli from Global Voices’ content partner Abzas Media, and journalist Mahammad Kekalov, who writes about people with disabilities and is a Global Voices contributor.

Police detained Abzas Media Director Ulvi Hasanli on the morning of November 20 as he was preparing to head to the airport, according to colleagues. Abzas Media believes Hasanli’s arrest is related to the platform’s recent investigations, which exposed corruption within the government.

Hasanli’s lawyer, Zibeyde Sadighova, told Meydan TV that Hasanli is being charged with smuggling. According to Abzas media, Mahammad Kekalov, who writes about people with disabilities and is a Global Voices contributor, was also detained on November 20. He was taken from his house against his will by plain-clothed police officers. As of this article's publication, no one has been able to contact Kekalov, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Later that same day, Abzas Media Editor-in-Chief Sevinc Vagifgizi, who was en route to Baku on a flight from Istanbul, was also detained at the airport, according to reporting by independent Meydan TV.

Mahammad Kekalov (left), Ulvi Hasanli (Middle), and Sevinc Vagifgizi (right). Images used with permission via Kekalov and Global Voices partner OC Media.

Several Azerbaijani activists who were on the same flight with Vagifgizi told Meydan TV she was detained once the plane landed in Azerbaijan. Before boarding the flight, she had given an interview with Meydan TV at the airport, saying she is certain that Hasanli’s arrest is directly related to the investigative work by Abzas media on corruption around individuals with connections to the ruling family doing business in Karabakh.

Both Hasanli’s home and the Abzas Media office were searched by police. In the case of the latter, police claimed they had discovered EUR 40,000 in cash. Hasanli denied having any connection to the money. Abzas media and local activists suspect police planted the cash during their search. Meanwhile, Sadighova also confirmed that Vagifgizi's home was also searched. The police did not find anything there. According to the lawyer, Hasanli was beaten by the police.

Abzas Media also released an audio recording of Hasanli explaining what happened:

I was about to get into the taxi leaving my apartment, a car stopped in front of the taxi and a bunch of men showed up. They were all wearing masks. They called my name. I cannot recall at which point exactly I was hit. They took me there and brought me to the police station. We started arguing. Two officers hit me. Then the questioning began.

They asked me why we [Abzas] did not write about Karabakh but instead wrote about corruption. ‘Aren’t there other problems to write about,’ they asked me. The money [police claim to have found] was planted there, it is so obvious. Because of the place where they allegedly found it. It was in the hallway of the office, not even inside one of the rooms [clearly someone just dropped it there].

In a statement shared by Abaz media on their Facebook page, the platform said, “As Abzas media we inform you, that Hasanli’s detention, the search at his house and on the promises of the office, are unlawful. All that is happening is directly related to [Hasanli’s] journalism. We demand immediate release of Hasanli.”

Hasanli was most recently detained at the US Embassy in Baku when he filmed a flash mob organized by feminist activists in July 2023. A month prior, in June, Hasanli was questioned over a Facebook post that police asked he remove. In the post, Hasanli shared photos of two police officers who had detained journalists covering an environmental protest outside of the capital.

Since 2016, Absaz media has been targeted with numerous denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), a cyberattack where a site is blocked for public access. In 2017, the website was blocked domestically, forcing the website managers to switch the website’s extension. In April 2020, the website was hacked and, as a result, lost a month’s worth of published articles, and some of the articles’ headlines were tampered with. The platform was targeted again in February 2021.

Various human rights watchdogs and governments have weighed in on the detainments, with Amnesty International saying they have “significant concerns” about the arrest and other international press groups calling for their release.

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