Ulvi Hasanli, director 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 the Abzas Media illegally and detained four people connected with the outlet as of December 1, 2023.
A former activist who co-founded Abzas Media in 2016, Hasanli was on a 2021 leaked list of individuals potentially targeted with Pegasus, spyware produced by the Israeli company NSO Group, according to the global investigative network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
ARREST AND DETENTION
Police in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, detained Hasanli outside his apartment at around 4:30 a.m. on November 20, 2023, as he was on his way to take an international flight. In a voice recording published by Abzas Media, Hasanli said he entered a taxi outside his home when a vehicle blocked the taxi’s path and masked men came out and grabbed him from the vehicle, punching him in the eye. The men took him to Baku City Police Department, where officers punched and kicked him and asked why Abzas Media writes about corruption, he said.
Later the same day, police searched Abzas Media’s editorial office, where they claimed to find 40,000 euros (US$43,770). Police also arrested Abzas Media consultant Mahammad Kekalov and, early the following morning, the outlet’s chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi.
On November 21, a district court ordered that Hasanli and Vagifgizi 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 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.
Hasanli and his 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 the outlet.
In the months prior to the arrests, Abzas Media published a 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.”
Hasanli and his colleagues are among several Azerbaijani arrested in retaliation for their work in late 2023.
Hasanli is detained at the Baku Pretrial Detention Center, Sadygova told CPJ in late 2023. He does not have any health issues, but authorities are denying him his right to call or receive visits from his family and to call his lawyers, she said, and have threatened to move him to worse conditions if he continues to complain to Azerbaijan’s human rights ombudsman about violations of his rights.
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 Hasanli’s mother, wife, and two sisters, without justifying this measure as required by law, and banned them from leaving the country, according to news reports and Sadygova. 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.