On June 12, 2019, Azerbaijani security service officers detained journalist Polad Aslanov at a checkpoint along the border with Iran. In November 2020, he was charged with high treason and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
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 Kavkazsky Uzel.
On June 13, 2019, the country’s state security service issued a statement accusing Aslanov, the chief editor of the independent news websites Xeberman and Press-az, of conspiring to sell secret information to foreign governments and publishing anti-government statements online, according to the regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel.
On June 14, the Sabail district court in Baku 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. She said that before his arrest, Aslanov was preparing to publish an investigation for Xeberman into alleged corruption in the tourism sector involving high-ranking government officials.
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.
In October 2019, Aslanova told CPJ that Aslanov said he was not receiving necessary medical treatment in prison, and that he had lost weight and his health had deteriorated due to his heart condition.
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 February 17, 2020, hearing, 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 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 demonstrate that charges against the journalist were fabricated, and he should be pardoned or otherwise released.
Aslanov appealed his sentence, and while it was pending, he was held in Pretrial Detention Center No. 1 in Kurdakhani settlement, in Baku, the capital, according to Jafarov and news reports.
Jafarov, who visited the journalist on September 19, 2020, told CPJ that after a six-day hunger strike in August, Aslanov weighed only 93 pounds and suffered from headaches, blood pressure issues, 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 assistance in detention, the quality of treatment was low.
Elchin Sadygov told Kavkazsky Uzel that authorities were unlawfully delaying the appeals process. The defense requested the court summon witnesses who had testified to police that Aslanov received funding from Iran, but who had declined to participate in the original trial. The defense also requested a reexamination of files from the journalist’s computer and cell phone, arguing the data extracted from them had been falsified. The court rejected all of those requests in a hearing on February 4, according to Kavkazsky Uzel, and on February 15, the court rejected Aslanov’s appeal, according to reports.
Aslanov believes the witnesses were pressured by authorities or worked for Azerbaijani intelligence services, Sadygov told Kavkazsky Uzel.
On February 17, Aslanov was transferred from pretrial detention to Prison No.1 in Baku, and his wife told Kavkazsky Uzel that after 18 days on hunger strike, he was extremely weak, suffered from intense headaches, nausea, and kidney and stomach pain in addition to his existing heart condition.
On March 3, Aslanov ended his hunger strike after 31 days, his wife told Kavkazsky Uzel. Fuad Hasanov, chair of local human rights group Democracy Monitor, told CPJ in October 2021 that Aslanov’s wife and mother had convinced the journalist to end his protest for the sake of his health.
On April 2, Elchin Sadygov told Kavkazsky Uzel that he had filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. The journalist’s wife told CPJ in October 2021 that authorities had repeatedly delayed the appeal without explaining why.
Aslanov began another hunger on July 12, but ended it on July 18 because he said authorities eased their pressure on him, according to news reports. Aslanova told CPJ this announcement followed the publication of authorities’ treatment of her husband and other inmates in the media and her appeals to the office of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Ombudsman and to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
On August 26, Aslanov’s brother was detained for five days on minor hooliganism charges for allegedly insulting staff at the offices of the ombudsman during a phone call about Aslanov’s case. Aslanov believes this was another attempt by authorities to pressure him, according to news reports.
In mid-October 2021, prison authorities began beating and punishing inmates who associated with Aslanov, according to reports and Aslanova, who said authorities were retaliating against her husband for his vocal support of the jailed bodyguard of opposition leader Ali Karimli.
As of late October 2021, Aslanov remains at Prison No.1 in the Nizami district of Baku, Gulmira Aslanova told CPJ by messaging app via Fuad Hasanov. Aslanova said that her husband is suffering from multiple rotten teeth, an inflamed palate and rheumatism, but but prison authorities have not checked his teeth, his pre-existing heart condition, or the kidney pains following his hunger strike.
Aslanov is permitted to meet family members once a month and was granted a three-day meeting with his family on September 22, Aslanova said, the first such meeting since his arrest.
Aslanov has a complaint pending at the European Court of Human Rights regarding the extension of his pretrial detention, his wife told CPJ.
CPJ emailed the Penitentiary Service and Justice Ministry of Azerbaijan for comment, but did not receive any replies. CPJ also emailed the Supreme Court, but did not receive any response.