A screenshot of journalist Ulvi Hasanli on the day of his arrest. (YouTube/AzadliqRadiosu)

Azerbaijan police arrest Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli, raid outlet

Stockholm, November 20, 2023 – Azerbaijani authorities should release Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli and allow the country’s beleaguered independent media to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

Police in the capital, Baku, detained Hasanli outside his apartment early Monday morning on suspicion of unlawfully bringing money into the country, Hasanli’s lawyer, Zibeyda Sadygova, told CPJ by messaging app. Police later raided the apartment and searched Abzas Media’s offices, according to multiple news reports; Sadygova told CPJ that authorities claim to have found 40,000 euros (US$43,770) in the office.

In a statement published on Facebook, Abzas Media said that Hasanli’s arrest and the raid were part of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s pressure on the outlet for “a series of investigations into the corruption crimes of the President and officials appointed by him.” In recent months, privately owned Abzas Media has published investigations into the origins of the wealth of senior state officials and relatives of President Aliyev.

“The raid on the offices of Abzas Media, one of the few domestic Azerbaijani media outlets that still dares to investigate official corruption, and the arrest of its director Ulvi Hasanli, appear to be in retaliation for the outlet’s pioneering journalism,” said CPJ Advocacy and Communications Director Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, in New York. “Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release Hasanli and end their harassment of Abzas Media.”

If Hasanli is charged and convicted of unlawfully bringing money into the country, he could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison, according to article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code.

Hasanli left his home at around 4:30 a.m. to take a flight abroad but failed to board that flight, the outlet’s chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi told local news agency Turan. In a voice recording published by Abzas Media, Hasanli said he entered a taxi outside his home when a vehicle blocked the taxi’s path and masked men came out and grabbed him from the vehicle, punching him in the eye. The men took him to Baku City Police Department, where officers punched and kicked him and asked him why Abzas Media writes about corruption, he said. He was later taken to the Khatai District Temporary Detention Center in Baku, according to Abzas Media.

At around midday, Baku police searched the Abzas Media office for around five hours, forcefully removing journalists who attempted to film outside the building, footage posted by Abzas Media shows. Abzas Media staff told Turan that they believe the 40,000 euros allegedly found by police had nothing to with the outlet or Hasanli and claimed the money had been placed there by police to provide a legal basis for possible charges against Hasanli and Abzas Media.

Abzas Media is one of a handful of independent outlets that remain in the country following a series of raids, arrests, and criminal investigations against independent media and press freedom groups since 2014.

On November 30, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Vilayat Eyvazov, told CPJ by email that claims that charges against Hasanli were related to his work were “completely groundless.” Eyvazov said that Hasanli, together with Abzas Media chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi and Hasanli’s assistant Mahammad Kekalov—who were arrested on November 21 and November 20 respectively—had smuggled “a large amount of foreign currency” across Azerbaijan’s state border “outside of customs control or secretly and without declaring it,” and that the 40,000 euros allegedly found in Abzas Media’s office was “a part of” the smuggled currency.

Editor’s note: This text has been updated in the ninth paragraph to include comment from the Vilayat Eyvazov, Azerbaijan’s minister of internal affairs.