Nargiz Absalamova, a reporter for anti-corruption investigative outlet Abzas Media, has been detained since November 2023 on charges of conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully.
Abzas Media is one of a handful of significant independent outlets remaining in Azerbaijan following a series of raids, arrests, and criminal investigations against independent media and press freedom groups since 2014. The outlet is known for its investigations into the business interests of relatives of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and senior state officials. Amid a decline in Azerbaijani-Western relations, Azerbaijani authorities have accused U.S. and European embassies and donor organizations of funding Abzas Media illegally and detained four people connected with the outlet as of December 1, 2023.
ARREST AND DETENTION
On November 20, 2023, police in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, arrested Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli and consultant Mahammad Kekalov and searched the outlet’s offices, where they claimed to find 40,000 euros (US$43,770). Police arrested Abzas Media chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi the following day. Police also interrogated other Abzas Media employees, including Absalamova, reports said.
The Khatai District Court in Baku later ordered Hasanli, Kekalov, and Vagifgizi to remain in pretrial detention for four months on charges of conspiring to bring a large sum of money into the country unlawfully, according to Abzas Media.
On November 30, officers at the Baku Police Department summoned Absalamova for a second round of questioning as a witness in the case against her colleagues and arrested her, according to media reports. The following day, the district court ordered Absalamova to be held in pretrial detention for three months on the same currency smuggling charges.
If found guilty, the Abzas Media workers each face up to eight years in prison under Article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code.
On November 28, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the U.S., German, and French envoys and accused their embassies and organizations registered in those countries of illegally funding Abzas Media. Reports in Azerbaijani state and pro-government media used materials that apparently had been leaked from authorities’ investigation into Abzas Media to accuse the outlet’s staff of illegally bringing undeclared grants from foreign donor organizations into the country.
Absalamova and her colleagues denied the charges. A statement issued by Abzas Media said the charges were retaliation by Aliyev for “a series of investigations into the corruption crimes committed by the president of the country and his appointed officials.” Hasanli said he believes police planted the money in order to fabricate a case, according to a video posted by the outlet.
In the months prior to the arrests, Abzas Media published series of investigations into the wealth of public figures such as the son-in-law and other family members of President Aliyev, the head of Azerbaijan’s state security service, and the country’s foreign minister.
Azerbaijani Minister of Internal Affairs Vilayat Eyvazov told CPJ by email on November 30 that any claims that charges against the outlet’s staff were related to their work were “completely groundless.”
2023 AZERBAIJAN MEDIA CRACKDOWN
The crackdown on Abzas Media has been linked to a decline in Azerbaijani-Western relations amid Azerbaijani claims of Western pro-Armenian bias following Azerbaijan’s military recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023. An anti-Western campaign in Azerbaijani state media, initiated days before the first Abzas Media arrests, highlighted donor organizations’ funding of civil society and independent media, accusing them of creating networks of Western “agents” in Azerbaijan and advocating a hunt for “spies.”
Absalamova and her colleagues are among several Azerbaijani journalists arrested in retaliation for their work in late 2023.
As with other detained Abzas journalists, prison authorities are denying Absalamova the right to call or receive visits from her family or to call her lawyer, the journalist’s lawyer Shahla Humbatova told independent regional outlet Caucasian Knot. Absalamova is suffering from back pain from an injury she suffered during a protest for journalists’ rights two years earlier, but authorities are refusing to allow relatives to provide her with an orthopedic mattress, her lawyer told the outlet.
CPJ did not receive replies to emailed requests for comment from the Office of the President of Azerbaijan and the Penitentiary Service in late 2023.