The November arrests of independent journalists Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi, and disability rights activist Mahammad Kekaklov sent shockwaves through the journalism and civil society communities in Azerbaijan. Several other independent journalists were called into questioning as witnesses as part of the ongoing investigation into the alleged crime of smuggling by an organized group — the charge Hasanli, Vagifgizi and Kekalov are accused of.
On December 1, one of these journalists, Nargiz Absalamova, was arrested under the same charge and sent into a three-month pre-trial detention. In a separate investigation, Azerbaijani authorities detained and charged Kanal 13’s founder, Aziz Orujov, on charges of illegal construction, an accusation Orujev has since refuted. This brings the total number of arrested journalists to five in just ten days.
Business as usual
The new wave of arrests rings a bell for many Azerbaijan observers, who have witnessed similar crackdowns before. “The situation never really changed,” explained Anar Mammadli, the head of an independent election observation organization from Baku, in a podcast interview with OC Media. “The difference this time, is the target group of the crackdown specifically [targeted] independent media and independent journalists. The authorities are sending a clear message: ‘Fear the system.'”
Between 2013 and 2014, scores of civic activists faced arrests and other forms of persecution — and although there were journalists among those arrested, the crackdown mainly targeted the country's vocal civil society experts. According to Bahruz Samadov, Azerbaijani author and PhD candidate at Charles University who also spoke on the OC Media podcast, the recent arrests signal “the end for independent, local media.”
Since their arrests, Hasanli, Vagifgizi and Kekalov have all been sentenced to pre-trial detention pending investigation. If found guilty, they face up to eight years behind bars. In addition to these arrests, police raided Abzas Media’s offices, where they allegedly found EUR 40,000 (USD 44,000), which the outlet accuses the authorities of planting in order to falsify evidence against them.
Abzas Media is known for its investigative reports, including on the business dealings of President Aliyev‘s family, as well as alleged corruption in the reconstruction efforts undertaken in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2020. The authorities failed to produce any evidence on the smuggling charges leveled against four Abzas Media journalists, and no evidence in the case of arrested Kanal 13 journalist Aziz Orujov, who is being accused of illegal construction.
Whether the government's message to “fear the system” holds true, remains to be seen. In the OC Media podcast, independent journalist Islam Shikhali said, “These arrests won't stop independent journalists […] All of the journalists arrested so far, knew that this would eventually happen to them. The goal is to keep the work going.”
Some Azerbaijani pundits say the attacks on journalists are directly linked to United States’ criticism of Azerbaijan for its military operation into Karabakh in September 2023. Samadov noted the “neurotic” reaction of official Baku against any Western criticism, not just that of the United States.
Two months ago, Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh forced more than 100k people to leave their homes & move into neighboring Armenia. The U.S. continues to stand with the ethnic Armenians from NK. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/lKj2lKhTyy
— Samantha Power (@PowerUSAID) November 21, 2023
Official Baku fired back. In a lengthy tweet, Assistant to the President Hikmet Hajiyev wrote, “During a 30-year-long occupation of Azerbaijan's land by Armenia, when millions more Azerbaijanis were the subject of notorious and bloody ethnic cleansing, the United States stood with [the] aggressor state of Armenia. Nowadays, the same policy continues in the same form and manifestation.”
Year-long witch hunt
These are not the only arrests that have happened this year. In July, Azerbaijan arrested high-profile political economist and civil activist Gubad Ibadoghlu:
Gubad Ibadoglu, Azerbaijani academic, economist, and politician was arrested yesterday (July 23) in Baku. His wife was beaten by the police.
— Arzu Geybulla (@arzugeybulla) July 24, 2023
Spurious charges of acquisition or sale of counterfeit money by an organized group have been leveled against Ibadoghlu.
Several civic and political activists also faced time in administrative detention. Often, such detentions were handed down after activists voiced criticism over state policies or institutions. According to the independent online news platform Mikroskop Media, over the summer — between June and August — at least seven people were sentenced to administrative detention, six were sentenced to pre-trial detention, and three journalists faced harassment and interruption of their work. Police also used disproportionate force and violence on the residents of Soyudlu when they protested against the environmental damage caused as a result of gold mining in the village.
According to a recently published list curated by an independent local group documenting politically motivated arrests, these recent detainments have raised the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan to 254.