European Federation of Journalists

Azerbaijan: journalists Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinj Vagifgizi detained for 4 months

Sevinj Vagifgizi and Ulvi Hasanli. Credits: Meydan TV.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joins the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to call on Azerbaijani authorities to release Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli, chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi and Hasanli’s assistant, Mahammad Kekalov. The EFJ believes that the two journalists and Kekalov are the victims of police manipulation to prevent them from continuing to investigate the corruption of those in power in Azerbaijan.

On 21 November 2023, the Khatai District Court in Baku ordered that Hasanli, Vaqifqizi and Kekalov be remanded in custody for four months. If found guilty of “conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully”, the journalists ant the director’s assistant face up to eight years in prison.

On 20 November 2023, Ulvi Hasanli, was detained by the police, while his apartment and newsroom were searched. Hasanli was stopped by the police on the way to Baku airport and charged with “smuggling foreign currency”. According to his lawyer, Hasanli has pleaded not guilty and denounced the charges as unfounded.

The police claimed that they had found 40,000 € in cash after a five-hour search of the media outlet’s premises. The editorial staff of Abzas Media believe the money is being used to obtain the legal basis to put an end to the media’s activities and press charges against Hasanli. Hasanli was taken to the search and told reporters that the questions asked at the police station were related to the investigations published by the media outlet on corruption. He also said that he had been punched and kicked during the interrogation.

Abzas Media issued the following statement on Facebook: “He told journalists that when he was detained, he was punched in the eye. Later, he was taken to the Baku City Police Department, where he was subjected to inhumane treatment and torture. He said that he was punched and kicked.”

Abzas media also released an audio recording of Hasanli explaining what happened: “The money [police claim to have found] was planted there, it is so obvious. Because of the place where they allegedly found it. It was in the hallway of the office, not even inside one of the rooms [clearly someone just dropped it there].”

On the same day, individuals in plainclothes who did not identify themselves took Kekalov from his home in Baku along with his laptop and cell phone. The Ministry of Internal Affairs initiated a criminal case against him under smuggling charges.

A day later, on 21 November 2023, at 1:30 am, police detained Sevinc Vaqifqizi, editor-in chief of Abzas Media, upon her return to Baku from Istanbul, and searched her home. In an interview with Meydan TV at the airport before boarding her flight to Baku, Vagifgizi said, she is certain that Hasanli’s arrest is directly related to the investigative work by Abzas media on the corruption among companies owned by individuals related to the ruling family doing business in Karabakh.

The General Secretaries of the EFJ and IFJ, Ricardo Gutiérrez and Anthony Bellanger, met with Ulvi Hasanli in Baku on 22 July and he told them of the increasing pressure he was under from the authorities following his investigations into corruption in Karabakh. “We are convinced that the unjustly detained journalists are the target of a crude manipulation aimed at silencing them, but also at intimidating all journalists operating in the country,” said Gutiérrez. “The message from the authorities is clear: stop covering corruption cases involving those in power in Azerbaijan”.

Earlier this year, Ulvi Hasanli attended a joint hearing between three committees of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on threats to the lives and safety of journalists in Azerbaijan. He explained how the Azerbaijani authorities had spied on journalists in an attempt to discredit them by exposing intimate information about their private lives.

“We consider the latest arrest of Mr Hasanli, on suspicion of smuggling , to be a reprisal for his co-operation with the Parliamentary Assembly and for his recent investigative journalism into corruption by members of the government,” said PACE rapporteurs Hannah Bardell (UK), Mogens Jensen (Denmark) and Sunna Aevarsdottir (Iceland). They called on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release Ulvi Hasanli.

The EFJ and IFJ submitted an alert about this case to the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism.