Journalist Polad Aslanov, chief editor of the independent news websites Xeberman and Press-az, has been serving a 13-year prison sentence in Azerbaijan since being convicted of high treason in November 2020. Azerbaijani security service officers detained Aslanov at a checkpoint along the border with Iran in June 2019. He was first sentenced to 16 years in prison, but the sentence was reduced to 13 years on appeal in February 2022.
On June 12, 2019, authorities detained Aslanov, along with his wife and daughter, when they attempted to enter Iran for a friend’s wedding, his wife, Gulmira Aslanova, told CPJ in October 2019. His wife and daughter were released, and authorities confiscated Aslanov’s camera, computer, and phone, according to the regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel.
On June 13, 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 Kavkazsky Uzel.
On June 14, the Sabail District Court in Baku, the capital, ordered Aslanov to remain in detention for four months, pending an investigation on allegations of high treason, according to Elchin Sadygov, the journalist’s lawyer, who spoke to CPJ at the time. Treason is punishable with up to life in prison, according to the Azerbaijani criminal code.
Aslanova told CPJ in October 2019 that her husband denied the charges, and said they were retaliation for his criticism of public officials and laws. Before his arrest, Aslanov was preparing to publish an investigation for Xeberman into alleged corruption in the tourism sector involving high-ranking government officials, she said.
Previously, in April 2018, Aslanov was drafted into military service for one year despite being medically unfit to serve due to his low weight and chronic heart condition, his wife told CPJ, saying she believed he was ordered to serve to prevent him from working.
During a February 3, 2020, preparatory hearing at the Baku Grave Crimes Court, Sadygov requested that presiding judge Faig Ganiev recuse himself due to a conflict of interest for his previous involvement in cases involving Aslanov, but the request was denied, according to a report by Kavkazsky Uzel.
At a hearing on February 17, Aslanov denied that he had spied or sold state secrets to the Iranian intelligence services, and alleged that law enforcement officers had pressured him into confessing by threatening his family. He said his detention was in retaliation for his journalistic work, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.
On November 16, 2020, the Baku Grave Crimes Court convicted Aslanov 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 he believed showed the charges were fabricated.
At a hearing on February 4, 2021, a court rejected the defense’s requests to summon witnesses in the case and to reexamine files from the journalist’s computer and phone, according to Kavkazsky Uzel. On February 15, the court also denied Aslanov’s appeal, the outlet reported.
Following the denial of his appeal, Aslanov was transferred from pretrial detention to Prison No. 1 in the Nizami district of Baku, where he remained as of late 2022, according to Kavkazsky Uzel and Aslanova.
Aslanov engaged in hunger strikes throughout 2020, 2021, and 2022, resulting in headaches, difficulty breathing, and kidney and stomach pain, and which exacerbated his preexisting heart condition, according to Jafarov and Kavkazsky Uzel. Jafarov said that while Aslanov received medical assistance in detention, the quality of treatment was poor.
In mid-October 2021, prison authorities began beating and punishing inmates associated with Aslanov, according to reports and Aslanova, who told CPJ that authorities were retaliating against her husband for his vocal support of the jailed bodyguard of opposition leader Ali Karimli.
On February 24, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled to reduce Aslanov’s sentence from 16 to 13 years, citing the lack of a previous criminal record and the fact that he has a young child, reports said.
Aslanov has two complaints pending at the European Court of Human Rights, regarding the extension of his pretrial detention and his conviction, his wife told CPJ in late October 2022.
Aslanov’s family is permitted to visit him once a month, his wife said.
Aslanova has said that her husband is suffering from multiple rotten teeth, an inflamed palate, and rheumatism, but prison authorities have not checked his teeth, his preexisting heart condition, or the kidney pains following his hunger strikes.
In November 2022, CPJ emailed the Penitentiary Service and Justice Ministry of Azerbaijan for comment but did not receive any replies.