Sevinj Vagifgizi, chief editor of 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
Police arrested Vagifgizi at 1:30 a.m. on November 21, 2023, as she returned from a work trip abroad and searched her home. The day before, police 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).
On November 21, a district court ordered that Vagifgizi and Hasanli remain in custody for four months on charges of conspiring to bring a large sum of money into the country unlawfully, according to Abzas Media and Hasanli’s lawyer, Zibeyda Sadygova, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app. The court ordered that Kekalov also be detained for four months on November 23, and that Abzas Media reporter Nargiz Absalamova be held for three months on December 1.
If found guilty, they 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.
Vagifgizi 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.” Vagifgizi said she believes police planted the money in order to fabricate a case, independent foreign-based online media outlet Meydan TV reported, without specifying when she made that statement.
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 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.”
Vagifgizi and her colleagues are among several Azerbaijani journalists arrested in retaliation for their work in late 2023.
Vagifgizi is detained at Baku Pretrial Detention Center, the journalist’s lawyer, Elchin Sadygov, told CPJ. She does not have any health issues, but authorities are denying her the right to call or receive visits from her family and to call her lawyers, he said.
In connection with the investigation into Abzas Media, authorities froze the bank accounts of the five detained Abzas workers and close to 20 of their family members, journalists, and other individuals connected with the outlet, including Vagifgizi’s mother and sister, without justifying this measure as required by law, and banned them from leaving the country, according to news reports and Hasanli’s lawyer, Zibeyda Sadygova, who spoke to CPJ. Analysts and the journalists’ lawyers told those outlets that freezes enacted on the pension cards of the journalists’ parents were unlawful.
CPJ emailed the Office of the President of Azerbaijan in November 2023
and the Penitentiary Service for comment in December
but did not receive any replies. Sevinj Vagifgizi’s legal name is Sevinj Abbasova.