Azerbaijan police arrested Afgan Sadygov, chief editor of independent news website Azel.tv, in May 2020, and charged him with extortion. That November, Sadygov, who was previously imprisoned for his work, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. During a July 2021 appeal hearing, his sentence was reduced to four years.
Sadygov is a founder of Azel.tv, which covers corruption and crime in Azerbaijan. The website appeared to be offline when CPJ tried to access it after Sadygov’s arrest and remained offline in late 2021. Azel.tv’s channel on YouTube, which contains video reports on alleged local corruption and citizens’ complaints about social injustices, remains active and had 24,700 subscribers as of October 2021.
At about 3 p.m. on May 13, 2020, Sadygov left his apartment in Baku, the capital, to buy groceries and did not return, according to his wife, Sevinch Sadygova, who spoke to CPJ via phone and messaging app. About two hours later, six men who identified themselves as employees of the Interior Ministry’s anti-corruption department arrived at the home, told Sadygov’s wife that he had been arrested, and searched the apartment, confiscating two cellphones, two computers, and the journalist’s reporting notes, Sadygova said.
On May 14, a judge in Baku’s Binagadi District Court charged Sadygov with extortion and ordered him to be detained for four months pending an investigation, according to Sadygova and his lawyer, Elchin Sadygov, who is not related to the journalist, and who spoke to CPJ via messaging app and in a phone interview. Sadygov faced up to 10 years in jail if convicted on those charges, according to the Azerbaijani criminal code.
The journalist’s lawyer said the extortion charge was filed in retaliation for a story Sadygov published on May 13 on his Facebook page, the Azel.tv channel on YouTube, and on the Azel.tv website about local officials in the city of Sumgayit who were allegedly involved in silencing underage victims of sexual assault by local police officers.
His lawyer also told CPJ that the Interior Ministry agents did not present a proper search warrant during the apartment raid, did not provide the journalist’s wife with a list of confiscated items, and brought their own witnesses, all contrary to Azerbaijani law.
During the May 14 court hearing, prosecutors accused Sadygov and another journalist, Sakit Muradov, chief editor of pro-government news website Xeberfakt.az, of extorting a bribe from a local official in exchange for not publishing compromising material about him, according to a statement by the prosecutor general’s office that CPJ reviewed at the time but has since been taken down.
The prosecutor general’s statement alleged that Sadygov and Muradov met with a Sumgayit official on May 9, 2020, to demand 15,000 manat (US$8,825), and accepted 10,000 manat (US$5,900) from him on May 13. Muradov allegedly confessed to accepting the bribe and was released “under police control” pending an investigation, according to that statement.
Sadygov’s lawyer told CPJ he had not been able to locate Muradov. CPJ called and emailed Muradov in October 2021 at the contact information posted on his outlet’s website. Muradov answered a call but the connection was poor and he did not respond to subsequent messages.
On November 3, 2020, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Sadygov to seven years in prison; the same day, Muradov was sentenced to five years of probation, according to news reports and Sadygov’s lawyer.
Sadygov continued to maintain his innocence, according to his lawyer, who filed an appeal against the sentence. On November 3, Sadygov began a hunger strike, the journalist’s wife told CPJ. Sadygova said that her husband had been experiencing high blood pressure and has problems with his heart, and that she was worried about his well-being in prison.
On November 24, 2020, Sadygova told Kavkazsky Uzel that Sadygov’s health had seriously declined during his hunger strike, and he had begun refusing to drink liquids. She said he was extremely weak, unable to walk, was barely speaking, and that he had weak blood pressure and kidney problems, the outlet reported.
On December 4, the Baku Appeals Court rejected an application by Sadygov’s lawyer to transfer the journalist to house arrest, according to reports. On December 15, Kavkazsky Uzel reported that prison medical staff had begun to feed Sadygov intravenously after he had passed out. Elchin Sadygov said that prison staff were wary of attempting to force-feed him, as the journalist had threatened to commit suicide if they did so.
In January 2021, Sadygov was transferred to the Medical Facility of the Penitentiary Service of Azerbaijan in Baku’s Nizami district, according to reports and Sadygova. On January 21, after 79 days on hunger strike, he fell into a coma, according to news reports. Officials transferred him to an intensive care unit, and he was fed with a tube in his stomach and injected with vitamins, and he regained consciousness the following day, his wife told CPJ.
The office of the Azerbaijani Human Rights Ombudsman, a nominally independent body whose head is nominated by the president, told Kavkazsky Uzel that its representatives visited Sadygov on January 25 and that the journalist was receiving medical care.
In a hearing on January 28, the Sumgayt Appeals Court declined Sadygov’s petition for a retrial, but reduced his sentence from seven years to six, according to reports.
Sadygov continued to refuse to eat, and on March 3, Sevinj Sadygova told Kavkazsky Uzel that her husband was being fed both intravenously and through a tube, and he remained in intensive care. In July, she told the outlet that Sadygov had developed serious kidney and lung problems, low blood pressure, and diabetes.
On July 2, 2021, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan further reduced Sadygov’s sentence from six years to four, according to reports. On the same day, Sadygov ended his hunger strike. His wife told Kavkazsky Uzel that Sadygov had lost 104 pounds over the course of the strike.
Following the court decision, Sadygov was transferred to the penitentiary service’s No. 3 Specialized Medical Facility in Baku’s Khazar district for six months on account of his lung issues, and remained there as of late 2021, his wife told CPJ.
She said he had regained some weight but found it difficult to stand for longer than five minutes and had dizzy spells and frequent memory problems. Prison authorities had not provided her with the results of her husband’s medical tests and information about his specific ailments, she said.
Elchin Sadygov planned to file a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights concerning Sadygov’s case, but had not done so as of late October 2021, the journalist’s wife told CPJ.
CPJ emailed the Penitentiary Service of Azerbaijan and the country’s Justice Ministry for comment in late 2021, but did not receive any replies.
Previously, in January 2017, authorities convicted Sadygov of aggravated assault in retaliation for his journalism and he was imprisoned for 18 months, according to news reports. Authorities also detained Sadygov in July and November 2018, and he served 30 days in administrative detention for his reporting in each instance.