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 extends pre-trial detention of 6 journalists accused of receiving Western funding

Stockholm, June 12, 2024—The Committee to Protect Journalists is dismayed by a series of Azerbaijani court decisions this week that further extended the pre-trial detention of six journalists with the anti-corruption investigative outlet Abzas Media.

The Khatai District Court in the capital, Baku, extended the pre-trial detention of Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli, editor-in-chief Sevinj Vagifgizi, and project manager Mahammad Kekalov by three months on Wednesday, June 12.

On Tuesday, the same court extended the detention of outlet journalist Nargiz Absalamova by three months, and on Monday, it extended the detention of journalists Hafiz Babali and Elnara Gasimova by one and two months, respectively.

Police raided Abzas Media and began arresting its staff in November 2023 on allegations of conspiring to illegally bring money from Western donor organizations into the country. The six journalists, who have all been charged with conspiracy to smuggle currency, face up to eight years in prison if convicted, according to Azerbaijan’s criminal code.

“CPJ is deeply disappointed that Azerbaijani authorities have once again prolonged the unwarranted incarceration of six journalists with Abzas Media and denounces the charges as retaliation for critical reporting,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release all detained Abzas Media staff and drop charges against the 13 journalists in the country who currently face similar accusations. Journalists must not be casualties of Azerbaijan’s diplomatic tussles with the West.”

The Abzas Media staff are among 11 journalists from four independent media outlets currently jailed in Azerbaijan on similar accusations amid a decline in relations between Azerbaijan and the West. Two more have been released under travel bans pending trial.

Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli arrives at court on June 11, 2024. (Photo: Farid Ismayilov)

Abzas Media denounced the charges as reprisal for “a series of investigations into the corruption crimes of the president and officials appointed by him.”

In April, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev rejected criticism of the arrests, saying media representatives “who illegally receive funding from abroad” had been arrested within the framework of the law.

On May 21, a court extended by one month the pre-trial detention of Kanal 13 director Aziz Orujov and journalist Shamo Eminov on similar charges.