Police in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, arrested Afgan Sadygov, chief editor of independent news website Azel.tv, in May 2020, and charged him with extortion. Sadygov, who was imprisoned for his work from 2016-18 and has been jailed at least three times since 2018, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison in November 2020.
Sadygov is a founder of Azel.tv, which reports on corruption and crime in Azerbaijan. The site appears to have gone offline after Sadygov’s arrest–when CPJ tried to access it–and remained offline late in the year. Azel.tv’s channel on YouTube, which contains video reports on local corruption and citizens’ complaints about social injustices, remains active and had 22,000 subscribers as of November 2020, according to a review by CPJ.
At about 3 p.m. on May 13, 2020, Sadygov left his Baku apartment 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 journalist’s home, told his wife that Sadygov had been arrested, and searched the apartment, confiscating two cellphones, two computers, and the journalist’s reporting notes, Sadygova told CPJ.
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 spoke to CPJ via messaging app and in a phone interview. Elchin Sadygov is not related to the journalist. 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 to the raid, all contrary to Azerbaijani law.
In November 2016, authorities convicted Sadygov of aggravated assault in retaliation for his journalism and sentenced him to one year and six months in prison, and he served the full sentence, according to CPJ research. Authorities detained Sadygov again in July and November 2018, and he served 30 days in administrative detention for his reporting, as CPJ documented at the time.
During the May 14, 2020, court hearing, the 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 was no longer able to access as of November 2020.
The prosecutor general’s statement alleged that Sadygov and Muradov met with a Sumgayit official on May 9 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 November 2020 at the contact information posted on his outlet’s website, but did not receive any reply.
On November 3, 2020, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Sadygov to seven years in prison; he will appeal this sentence, according to his wife and lawyer, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app, and news reports. Sadygov continued to maintain his innocence, according to his lawyer.
On November 3, 2020, Muradov was sentenced to five years of probation, according to Sadygov’s lawyer.
According to Sadygova, the journalist is being held in detention in the Kurdakhani pretrial detention center near Baku. Sadygov has had access to his lawyer, the lawyer said. In the first month of his detention, he was denied contact with his wife, according to Sadygova and the lawyer.
Sadygova told CPJ that her husband has been experiencing high blood pressure and has problems with his heart, and that he started a hunger strike on November 3, 2020. She told CPJ that she is worried about his well-being in prison.
In November 2020, CPJ emailed a request for comment to Azerbaijan’s prosecutor general’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs—which oversees the country’s prison system—but did not receive any responses.