A screenshot of journalist Hafiz Babali giving an interview after being questioned by police in the Abzas Media case. (YouTube/Amerikanin Sesi)

Azerbaijani journalist Hafiz Babali latest arrest in Abzas Media crackdown

Stockholm, December 13, 2023 – The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the detention on Wednesday of investigative journalist Hafiz Babali and calls on Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release him and other detained journalists.

“By arresting widely respected investigative journalist Hafiz Babali, Azerbaijani authorities are only confirming that their real aim in targeting Abzas Media is to silence its uncompromising reporting on official corruption allegations,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities in Azerbaijan should immediately release Babali along with all other unjustly jailed journalists and stop the ongoing wave of reprisals against the independent press.”

Police in the capital, Baku, detained Babali, economics editor at independent news agency Turan, in a local railway station on December 13 and took him to his home in the nearby city of Sumgayit, where they conducted a search, according to media reports. Officers confiscated the journalist’s computer, cell phone, and some documents, before taking him to the Baku Police Department.

A government spokesperson said Babali was arrested in connection with criminal investigations into anti-corruption investigative outlet Abzas Media, without specifying the charges, those reports stated. Since November 20, Azerbaijani authorities have ordered four members of Abzas Media, including director Ulvi Hasanli and chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi, to be held in pretrial detention for up to four months on charges of conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully, amid accusations by authorities that Western embassies and donors funded the outlet illegally. If found guilty, each faces up to eight years in prison under Article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code.

Investigators previously questioned Babali on November 28 and froze his bank accounts in connection with the Abzas Media case, according to news reports and Facebook posts by the journalist. Babali said he told investigators he published investigations on Abzas Media’s website but knew nothing about the outlet’s finances.

In an interview with U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Babali said he believed a recent Abzas Media corruption report focusing on the head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service was “the last straw” for Azerbaijani authorities before their crackdown on the outlet.

Babali is at least the seventh member of the press arrested in retaliation for his work in Azerbaijan in the past month. CPJ is currently investigating the cases of three other journalists arrested on extortion charges since December 8 to determine if they are related to their work.

On December 29, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Ismet Aliyev, told CPJ by email that a court on December 14 ordered Babali detained pending trial on the conspiracy charges, saying that Babali “took part in receiving and distributing a large amount of foreign currency funds that were smuggled into” Azerbaijan. “In general, opinions and claims about the connection between the criminal liability of human rights defenders and journalists and their professional activities stem from the attempts of supporters and relatives of those persons to involve international organizations in the issue and to benefit from their support,” Aliyev said. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 2 to include comments from Azerbaijan’s deputy minister of internal affairs.