On June 12, 2019, Azerbaijani security service officers detained Polad Aslanov, the chief editor of the independent news websites Xeberman and Press-az, at a border crossing along with his wife and daughter, when they attempted to enter Iran for a friend’s wedding, his wife, Gulmira Aslanova, told CPJ in late October 2019. In November 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on high treason charges.
On June 13, 2019, the country’s state security service issued a statement accusing Aslanov of conspiring to sell secret information to foreign governments and publishing anti-government statements online, according to the regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel.
Aslanov’s wife and daughter were released, and authorities confiscated Aslanov’s camera, computer, and phone, according to Kavkazsky Uzel.
On June 14, 2019, the Sabail district court in Baku ordered Aslanov to remain in detention for four months pending an investigation on charges of high treason, according to Elchin Sadygov, the journalist’s lawyer, who spoke to CPJ at the time. If found guilty, he could be jailed for life, according to Article 274 of the Azerbaijani criminal code and the journalist’s wife.
Gulmira Aslanova told CPJ in October 2019 that Aslanov denies the charges and said they were in retaliation for the journalist’s criticism of public officials and laws. She said that before his arrest, the journalist was preparing to publish an investigation for Xeberman into alleged corruption in the tourism sector involving high-ranking government officials.
Aslanova told CPJ that in April 2018, her husband was drafted into military service for one year despite being medically unfit to serve due to his low weight and a chronic heart condition. She said she believes he was ordered to serve to prevent him from working.
In October 2019, Aslanova told CPJ that the journalist’s health had deteriorated due to his heart condition, and that he had lost weight in prison. The journalist told her that he was not receiving necessary medical treatment.
At a February 3, 2020, preparatory hearing at the Baku Grave Crimes Court, Sadygov, Aslanov’s lawyer, requested that presiding judge Faig Ganiev recuse himself due to a conflict of interest, according to a report by Kavkazsky Uzel. According to Kavkazsky Uzel, Sadygov said the judge had worked in the investigation department of the country’s Ministry of National Security from 1998 to 2013, and that Ganiev’s former colleagues at the ministry arrested Aslanov and investigated his current case, raising the possibility that the judge would not be able to remain neutral. Sadygov also said that from 2007 to 2008, Ganiev was the investigator in the case of the Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev while Sadygov was his lawyer; Sadygov claimed that Ganiev tried to pressure him at the time, according to Kavkazsky Uzel. Sadygov’s recusal request was denied, according to the same report.
At a February 17, 2020, hearing, Aslanov denied the treason charges—under which he is accused of spying for Iran and selling state secrets to the Iranian intelligence services—and alleged that law enforcement officers had pressured him into confessing by threatening his family and that his detention is in retaliation for his journalistic work, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.
In a separate case, on December 24, 2019, Aslanov had been charged with “threatening with murder or inflicting serious health damage,” but on February 11, 2020, the alleged victim retracted his complaint, according to Kavkazsky Uzel.
On October 22, 2020, the Baku Grave Crimes Court announced the end of Aslanov’s trial, and the state prosecutor gave his closing speech, according to news reports. The prosecutor dismissed the murder threat charge, but upheld the high treason charge, and requested that Aslanov be sentenced to 17 years in prison, according to those reports.
On November 16, 2020, the Baku Grave Crimes Court found Aslanov guilty of high treason and sentenced him to 16 years in prison, according to Aslanova, news reports, and Rasul Jafarov, chairman of the Baku Human Rights Club, a local advocacy group, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app. Jafarov alleged that there were substantial irregularities in Aslanov’s case that demonstrate that charges against the journalist were fabricated, and “thus he should be released as early as possible through legal mechanisms that exist in the legislation of Azerbaijan, such as pardoning, amnesty, [and] decision of higher courts.” Aslanova told CPJ that her husband’s lawyer will appeal the sentence.
As of September 2020, Aslanov was being held in the pre-trial detention center #1 in Kurdakhani settlement, in the Sabunçu district of Baku, the capital, according to Jafarov.
On August 22, 2020, Aslanov’s wife was denied access to him in detention without a marriage certificate, Turan reported. Aslanova appealed to the head of the detention center, Elnur Ismayilov, to ensure her legal right to see her husband, according to that report.
Jafarov, who visited the journalist on September 19, 2020, told CPJ that after a six-day hunger strike in August, Aslanov’s weight was down to 42 kg (93 pounds), and he also suffered from headaches, had issues with blood pressure, and difficulties breathing. Aslanov held the hunger strike to protest the “violation of his rights” and “unobjective court investigation,” according to Kavkazsky Uzel. Jafarov told CPJ that while Aslanov received medical help in detention, the quality of treatment was low.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Interior, which oversees the country’s prison system, did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the journalist’s case.