Stockholm, December 4, 2023—Azerbaijani authorities must release journalist Rufat Muradli and end their crackdown on the independent press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.
On Saturday, police in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, arrested Muradli, a presenter for the popular online broadcaster Kanal 13, on charges of minor hooliganism and disobeying police orders. Later the same day, the Khatai District Court in Baku sentenced him to 30 days’ detention on those charges, according to news reports and a copy of the court verdict reviewed by CPJ.
Muradli denies the charges, Kanal 13 chief editor Anar Orujov told CPJ. Orujov said the allegations against the journalist were “absolutely not credible” and were a part of Azerbaijani authorities’ ongoing crackdown against Kanal 13 and other independent media.
Muradli’s detention came four days after authorities ordered Kanal 13 director Aziz Orujov, who is Anar’s brother, to be held in pretrial detention for three months on charges of illegal construction, which his lawyer said were in retaliation for his journalism. Four members of anti-corruption investigative outlet Abzas Media have been detained on financial crime accusations since November 20.
“The sixth Azerbaijani journalist arrested in less than two weeks, Rufat Muradli, appears to have been sentenced on charges every bit as spurious and pretextual as those facing his colleagues,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna in New York. “Azerbaijani authorities should release Muradli and the other unjustly jailed journalists immediately and stop their crackdown on independent reporting.”
According to the court verdict, two police officers approached Muradli just after midday on a street in Baku’s Khatai district because he was “shouting obscenities.” When police “called him to order,” the journalist “did not obey,” so the officers arrested him. The verdict did not provide any additional detail.
An associate of Muradli told regional outlet Caucasian Knot that Muradli had dropped him and two other individuals off outside a café, saying he would park the car and meet them inside, but he never returned. Muradli’s lawyer quoted the journalist as saying that police arrested him in the car park without explanation. The court convicted Muradli “effectively without a hearing” and did not allow the defense to speak, his lawyer told Caucasian Knot.
Azerbaijani authorities commonly use trumped-up charges of hooliganism against government critics, according to rights organizations, including in numerous cases involving journalists. In February, photojournalist Vali Shukurzade was sentenced to 30 days in jail on charges of hooliganism and disobeying police orders, which his lawyer said were fabricated.
Muradli is also a deputy chairman of the unregistered Azerbaijan Democracy and Prosperity Party, whose chairman Gubad Ibadoghlu has been detained since July on charges widely criticized as politically motivated. However, Orujov told CPJ the timing of Muradli’s arrest amid a wave of journalist detentions, including Kanal 13’s director, strongly suggested it was related to his journalism. Orujov said Muradli was well-known as the presenter of Kanal 13’s political show on its Azerbaijani-language YouTube channel, which has more than 400,000 subscribers.
Separately, on Monday, police in Azerbaijan’s southwestern city of Lankaran detained freelance reporters Shahla Karim and Aytaj Mammadli while they were conducting street interviews, on the grounds that the pair lacked press IDs, according to news reports and Karim, who spoke to CPJ. Karim said police deleted video footage from Mammadli’s cell phone and attempted to delete footage on Karim’s camera storage card, but stopped and returned her storage card when she called the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Police released both journalists after about an hour and a half.
On December 16, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Fazil Guliyev, told CPJ via email that a local official asked Karim and Mammadli why they were interviewing municipal workers. Guliyev added, “since no unlawful act had been committed police officers serving in that area did not detain anyone and did not delete images from anyone’s phone.”
Guliyev added that allegations of fabricated hooliganism charges against government critics are “the baseless views of certain individuals, including some media representatives.”
Editor’s note: This text has been updated in the 10th paragraph to reflect that Karim and Mammadli are freelance journalists. It has also been updated in the 11th and 12th paragraphs with a response from the Ministry of Internal Affairs sent after publication.