Stockholm, November 21, 2023—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Azerbaijani authorities to release Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli and chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi and to disclose the whereabouts of Hasanli’s assistant, Mahammad Kekalov, who has been missing since Monday.
A district court in the capital of Baku on Tuesday ordered that Hasanli and Vagifgizi remain in custody for four months on charges of conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully, Abzas Media reported. If found guilty, they face up to eight years in prison under Article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code.
Individuals in plainclothes who did not identify themselves took Kekalov from his home in Baku on Monday along with his laptop and cell phone, according to news reports and a source familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. As of Tuesday evening, Kekalov’s whereabouts remained unknown.
“The remand terms handed to Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinj Vagifgizi only serve to underline authorities’ real goal, which is to silence Abzas Media’s bold anti-corruption reporting,” said CPJ Advocacy and Communications Director Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, in New York. “Azerbaijani authorities should release Vagifgizi and Hasanli immediately, provide information on Mahammad Kekalov’s whereabouts, and allow Abzas Media to continue its vital public interest reporting.”
Police arrested Hasanli on Monday, November 20, raided his apartment, and searched the Baku office of independent investigative website Abzas Media, where they said they found 40,000 Euros (US$43,770). Officers took a computer, cell phone, iWatch, and hard disk from the apartment and confiscated a microphone and hard disk from the office, Zibeyda Sadygova, the journalist’s lawyer, told CPJ.
Hasanli and Vagifgizi have denied the charges, calling them retaliation for Abzas Media’s investigations into alleged corruption by relatives of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and state officials. Hasanli said he believes police planted the money in order to fabricate a case, according to a video posted by 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.
In 2021, Vagifgizi was one of several Azerbaijani journalists whose phones were found to be compromised by Pegasus, spyware produced by the Israeli company NSO Group. Hasanli’s name was also on a leaked list of individuals targeted with Pegasus, according to the global investigative network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
On November 30, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Vilayat Eyvazov, told CPJ by email that claims that charges against Hasanli, Vagifgizi, and Kekalov were related to their work were “completely groundless.” Eyvazov said that the three 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 (US$43,601) allegedly found in Abzas Media’s office was “a part of” the smuggled currency.
CPJ’s email to the Baku Police Department did not receive any reply.
Editor’s note: Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed Kekalov’s arrest on November 23. This text has been updated in the 10th paragraph with comment from the Minister of Internal Affairs.