Abzas Media's Mahammad Kekalov, (left) Sevinj Vagifgizi, Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Hafiz Babali, and Nargiz Absalamova.
Abzas Media's Mahammad Kekalov, (left) Sevinj Vagifgizi, Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Hafiz Babali, and Nargiz Absalamova are seen in this composite image published by the investigative outlet on March 14. The journalists face up to eight years in prison on currency smuggling charges, as Azerbaijan cracks down on independent media. (Screenshot: Abzas Media/YouTube)

Azerbaijan courts extend pre-trial detention of 6 Abzas Media journalists

Stockholm, March 15, 2024—The Committee to Protect Journalists on Friday condemned a series of court decisions in Azerbaijan extending the pre-trial detention of six journalists with the anti-corruption investigative news outlet Abzas Media.

“As Azerbaijan sweeps up and detains critical journalists across the country, this latest decision to extend the incarceration of Abzas Media staff illustrates authorities’ steadfast determination to censor its best and brightest reporters by locking them up,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities in Azerbaijan should immediately drop all charges against Abzas Media staff, release all unjustly jailed journalists, and end their crackdown on the independent press.”

If found guilty, the six journalists, who have all been charged with conspiracy to smuggle currency, could face up to eight years in prison under Article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code.

In separate hearings on March 14 and 15, the Khatai District Court in the capital, Baku, extended by three months the detention of Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli, chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi, and project manager Mahammad Kekalov, according to news reports and a Facebook post by Abzas Media.

In recent weeks, the courts also issued three-month extensions for the detention of three of Abzas Media’s journalists. Rulings were made in early March for Hafiz Babali, and Elnara Gasimova, who were arrested in December and January, and in February for Nargiz Absalamova, who was arrested in December.

The crackdown on Abzas Media—an outlet known for investigating allegations of corruption among senior state officials—began in November when police raided its offices and accused staff of illegally bringing Western donor money into Azerbaijan.

Abzas Media said that the raid was part of 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.” The outlet has continued publishing with a new team in Europe and with the support of Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based group that pursues the work of imprisoned journalists.

The Abzas Media staff are among 10 journalists from three independent media outlets currently jailed in Azerbaijan, amid a decline in relations between Azerbaijan and the West.

Earlier in March, police raided Toplum TV’s office and a court ordered that founder Alasgar Mammadli and editor Mushfig Jabbar be detained for four months pending investigation on currency smuggling charges.

Broadcaster Kanal 13’s director Aziz Orujov, and reporter Shamo Eminov have been in jail since November and December, respectively, on the same charges.