Police are seen in Baku, Azerbaijan, on April 6, 2020. Police recently arrested journalist Afgan Sadygov for alleged extortion. (Reuters/Aziz Karimov)

Journalist Afgan Sadygov detained since May in Azerbaijan

New York, June 17, 2020 – Azerbaijani authorities should release journalist Afgan Sadygov and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The journalist has been jailed for his work at least three times in three years, according to CPJ research.

At about 3 p.m. on May 13, Sadygov, chief editor of the independent news website Azel.tv, left his Baku apartment to buy groceries and did not come back, his wife Sevinch Sadygova told CPJ over the phone.

About two hours later, six men who identified themselves as employees of the Interior Ministry’s anti-corruption department arrived at the journalist’s home, told his wife that Sadygov had been arrested, and searched the apartment, confiscating two cellphones, two computers, and Sadygov’s reporting notes, Sadygova told CPJ.

On May 14, a judge in Baku’s Binagadi District Court charged Sadygov with extortion and ordered him to be detained for four months pending an investigation, according to Sadygova and Elchin Sadygov, the journalist’s lawyer, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview. The journalist and his lawyer share a surname but are not related.

The court alleged that Sadygov and another journalist, Sakit Muradov, chief editor of pro-government news website Xeberfakt.az, extorted a bribe from a local official in exchange for not publishing compromising material about him, according to a statement by the prosecutor general’s office.

However, the journalist’s lawyer said the extortion charge was filed in retaliation for a story Sadygov published on May 13 about local officials in the city of Sumgayit, who were allegedly involved in silencing underage victims of sexual assault by local police officers.

If convicted, Sadygov could face up to 10 years in jail, according to the Azerbaijani criminal code. He has not been able to speak with his family while in detention, his wife said. He has had access to his lawyer and maintains his innocence, the lawyer said.

“Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release Afgan Sadygov, drop the trumped up charges against him, and stop persecuting the journalist once and for all,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Gulnoza Said. “Authorities have used bogus charges to intimidate and jail independent reporters for far too long.”

On May 13, Sadygov published the report in question on his Facebook page, the Azel.tv channel on YouTube, and on the Azel.tv website. The outlet’s website appears to have gone offline since CPJ accessed it last week.

The prosecutor general’s statement alleges that Sadygov and Muradov met with a Sumgayit official on May 9 to demand 15,000 manat ($8,823), and accepted 10,000 manat ($5,900) from him on May 13. Muradov allegedly confessed to accepting the bribe and was released “under police control” pending an investigation, according to that statement.

Sadygov’s lawyer told CPJ he had not been able to locate Muradov, and believes Muradov could have been involved in framing the journalist. CPJ called and emailed Muradov at the contact information posted on his outlet’s website, but did not receive any reply.

His lawyer also told CPJ that the Interior Ministry agents did not present a proper search warrant during the apartment raid, did not provide the journalist’s wife with a list of confiscated items, and brought their own witnesses to the raid, all contrary to Azerbaijani law.

The prosecutor general’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.

Authorities previously detained Sadygov in July and November 2018, and he served 30 days in administrative detention for his reporting, as CPJ documented at the time. In 2016, he was sentenced to one year and six months in prison over his journalism, and served the full term, according to CPJ research.