Arrests at AbzasMedia: Allegations and Responses

How did journalists investigating corruption in the highest echelons of power end up under investigation for smuggling?

Since November 20, 2023, the team at the Azerbaijani online publication AbzasMedia, known for its groundbreaking journalistic investigations in recent years, has faced anticipated reprisals. The director of the publication, Ulvi Hasanli, detained by plainclothes individuals outside his home at night, had anticipated repercussions specifically due to the publication of these investigations. Details about the investigations themselves will follow shortly.

The plainclothes individuals who detained the journalist turned out to be operatives from the Main Police Department of Baku. Following this, searches were conducted in Ulvi Hasanli’s apartment and the AbzasMedia office in his presence. The police claim that 40,000 euros were found on a shelf in the office corridor.

Ulvi Hasanli claims to have been assaulted during the arrest:

“They were all wearing masks. And it seems they injured my eye right there, in the taxi. They brought me to the police department. One of the officers punched [me], another kicked with their foot. They asked about Abzas: ‘Why aren’t you writing about Karabakh? Why focus on corruption?'”

Ulvi Hasanli – Illustration: Meydan TV

As the news of Ulvi Hasanli’s arrest circulated on social media, it emerged that the deputy director of the publication, Magomed Kekalov, had also been “taken.” He was taken directly from his home, but his whereabouts were unknown.

The AbzasMedia team issued a statement, asserting that Ulvi Hasanli had faced physical violence during his arrest and stating their intent to continue informing the public:

“On behalf of AbzasMedia, we declare that the detention of U. Hasanli and the search conducted in his apartment and office are illegal. All this is related to his journalistic activities. Therefore, U. Hasanli must be immediately released.

We hold the head of state, Ilham Aliyev, responsible for this illegal detention. We have published a series of investigations into corruption committed by the country’s president and officials appointed by him, and we believe that Hasanli’s arrest is directly linked to this.

We believe that the president ordered Ulvi Hasanli’s arrest to shut down our publication and prevent us from informing you about these corrupt acts. However, no arrests or pressure can stop us from telling you the truth.

You deserve the truth, and you have the right to know how your taxes are being spent and by whom. Our arrests cannot limit your freedom to access information. We will continue our investigations.”

On November 21, in an interview with Meydan TV, Sevinj Vagifgyzy, the chief editor of AbzasMedia, revealed that after the arrest, the police questioned Ulvi Hasanli about the ongoing investigations conducted by the publication. Specifically, they asked why AbzasMedia “writes not about successes in Karabakh but about corruption,” implying investigations related to companies involved in the reconstruction of Karabakh.

Sevinj Vagifgyzy Illustration: Meydan TV

“Ulvi Hasanli was arrested directly on the orders of Ilham Aliyev. We have proven that companies owned by the president’s family members win tenders for projects in Karabakh using opaque mechanisms, execute them using public funds, and profit from this. And, of course, this infuriated them. But we declare that even if Ulvi Hasanli, myself, or anyone else from our team ends up in prison, there are others who will continue this work. Let them not think they can halt these investigations by arresting individuals.”

Sevinj Vagifgyzy asserts that the 40,000 euros allegedly found in the AbzasMedia office have no connection to the publication or its staff and were planted there by the police.

From the Airport to Prison

Upon her return to the country from an international trip on the night of November 21, Sevinj Vagifgyzy was detained directly in the airplane. Initially, she was taken to her apartment where a search was conducted. According to lawyer Elchin Sadygov, the search lasted over two hours but did not yield anything relevant to the investigation. Following this, Sevinj Vagifgyzy was taken to the Main Police Department.

AbzasMedia leadership faces charges under Article 206.3.2 of the Criminal Code – smuggling committed by a group of individuals in conspiracy. By the decision of the Hatain District Court, pre-trial detention for 4 months has been imposed on them.”

Muhammad Kekalov – Illustration: Meydan TV

Three days after Muhammad Kekalov was taken from his home in an unknown direction, it was confirmed that he was also arrested. However, Kekalov stated that he was fine and refused legal representation. He, too, was decided to be detained for four months.

On November 30, responding to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Interior Minister Vilayat Eyvazov deemed the statements linking the AbzasMedia leadership’s charges to their professional activities completely unfounded.

According to Eyvazov, the three arrested journalists allegedly transported “a large amount of foreign currency” “outside customs control or secretly without declaration” across Azerbaijan’s state border. He claimed that the 40,000 euros found in the AbzasMedia office were “part” of this smuggled currency.

Shortly before the arrests of AbzasMedia staff, Azerbaijani state television and pro-government news sites began circulating information about the necessity of launching a relentless fight against non-governmental organizations and media structures collaborating with American and European funds. These reports and publications claimed the existence of networks in Azerbaijan engaged in spying for the United States. Subsequently, following the arrest of the AbzasMedia leadership, these same media outlets disseminated copies of documents allegedly obtained from the investigation, accusing AbzasMedia of trying to destabilize the country and alleging that Ulvi Hasanli and Muhammad Kekalov illegally brought substantial amounts of money into the country. These materials also mentioned names of individuals collaborating with AbzasMedia, emphasizing their alleged unlawful actions.

AbzasMedia staff and family members of the publication’s leadership were summoned by the police for questioning, their bank accounts were frozen, and restrictions on leaving the country were imposed.

From Witness to Suspect

On December 1, one of the AbzasMedia employees, journalist Nargiz Absalamova, was summoned again to the Baku Main Police Department for further testimony. From there, she was taken to Hatain District Court, where she was also subjected to a three-month pre-trial detention. Her lawyer, Shahla Gumbatova, mentioned that Nargiz Absalamova considers her arrest unlawful and links it to her professional activities:

“Both during the court proceedings and while signing the investigation protocol, she firmly stated that she had not committed any crimes and had no involvement in the accusations presented. The court had extensive deliberation. It seemed there was some hesitation, possibly because during the session, we demonstrated the baselessness of the investigative body’s request for detention. This was evident, yet ultimately, the court announced a three-month detention without providing any justification for its decision.”

Nargiz Absalamova – Illustration: Meydan TV

“But the most interesting aspect was in the petition submitted by the investigator to impose pre-trial detention. The necessity for detention was explained by alleging that Sevinj Abbasova (Vagifgyzy), Ulvi Hasanli, Muhammad Kekalov, and Nargiz Absalamova were involved in smuggling in conspiracy with other individuals whose identities are currently being established. As Nargiz Absalamova did not assist the investigation in exposing these individuals, the investigation believed that if she remained free, she would contact these individuals and facilitate their evasion from the investigation.”

Why was AbzasMedia targeted?

Many believe that the pressure on AbzasMedia is primarily linked to the publication conducting anti-corruption investigations involving the president’s family, officials close to the president, as well as construction projects in Karabakh and companies involved in these developments.

A brief overview of AbzasMedia’s activities and the focus of their prominent investigations is also presented in a summary by the “Caucasian Knot.”

For instance, one investigation reveals that the construction of a residential complex with six multi-story buildings in Agdam is managed by LLC “PMD Group,” part of the structural division of PASHA Holding, which, in turn, is owned by members of President Ilham Aliyev’s family.

In addition to the residential complex, “PMD Group” has also started constructing two hotels in Agdam: Park Forest Hotel Agdam with 110 rooms and City Hotel Agdam with 130 rooms.

Another AbzasMedia investigation discloses that some local and Turkish companies involved in constructing reservoirs and water intakes in the liberated territories had tax debts at the time of participating in tenders.

The investigation highlights the lack of transparency in these tenders, ultimately leading to projects executed by companies linked to Ilham Aliyev’s family, certain officials, or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

If proven guilty, AbzasMedia employees could face up to 8 years of imprisonment for their journalistic investigation.

Journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, who found himself in prison in 2014 and later had to leave the country upon release, points out that this isn’t the first instance where the Azerbaijani government has targeted the “democratic camp”:

“Unfortunately, when relations with Western states deteriorate, the domestic political situation in Azerbaijan changes dramatically. This is quite understandable. The authorities try to neutralize democratically inclined media, human rights NGOs, and socio-political activists. This isn’t the first time; we witnessed similar actions in 2013-2014. The arrests during that period affected politicians, journalists, and representatives of civil society. Independent press was almost entirely crippled, and the overwhelming majority of independent and critical-minded journalists faced pressure. Overall, the government views organizations and journalists engaged in such activities as agents of the West.”

Mirkadyrov believes that the repression against investigative and critical media might continue.

“It’s been an indefinite period during which I’ve been formally and effectively without a salary.”

Some of those who provided testimony as witnesses in the case of AbzasMedia were later also summoned as defendants. Their bank accounts were blocked, and they were barred from leaving the country. This was written about on Facebook by Hafiz Babali, a journalist-investigator who collaborated with AbzasMedia:

‘It turns out that in this fabricated case, I’m not just a witness but a defendant. The day after this decision was made, I was interrogated by the Main Police Department as a witness. What illegal act can they accuse me of? Though I understand that we live in such an environment, in such a society, and under such a regime where the puppet court can charge any innocent person with the most severe crime and throw them behind bars. Maybe it does, there are plenty of examples. Did I collaborate with Abzas? Yes, I’m a journalist. It’s my job. As I stated during the interrogation, there are very few media outlets in Azerbaijan capable of publishing such investigations. Thanks to Abzas, my investigations received broad resonance. While preparing these materials, in accordance with the genre’s requirements, as a professional investigator, I often had to work with hundreds of sources and documents. The things that the prosecutor ‘doesn’t see,’ I detailed extensively and presented to the reader. As the Azerbaijani poet Sabir said: straight is straight, crooked is crooked. But those who look in the mirror seem to prefer to shatter it. If I lived in another country, such articles would be appreciated at the state level, and criminal cases would be initiated against those who enrich themselves illegally. But in Azerbaijan, as you can see, it’s all the other way around: the authorities pursue those who criticize them.’

Similarly, economist Togrul Veliev discovered that his bank accounts were blocked after testifying in this case:

‘By a decision made on November 29 by the Hatai District Court (the day after I was turned from a witness into an ‘associate of the accused’), an arrest was placed on my bank accounts. The decision was made on November 29, and on December 1, it was sent to Pasha Bank, which then blocked all my accounts starting from December 5. This includes the account where I receive my salary. In other words, I have been formally and effectively left without a salary indefinitely. How do you think a person who isn’t receiving a salary should live? What can they live on?’

According to lawyer and media expert Alesker Mammadli, through the Media Law adopted in 2021, the government is attempting to control the entire media sphere, leaving no room for critical media:

‘Since AbzasMedia is an example of critical media that pays special attention to critical aspects and puts anti-corruption investigations at the forefront, they probably ‘offended’ someone in this context, leading to the launch of this process. Of course, I don’t believe that the arrested individuals are guilty of anything. I also don’t think that the accusations will be based on objective evidence. Worldwide, this would be perceived as a clear suppression of press freedom and freedom of expression, and in Azerbaijani society, it is also perceived exactly as such.’

Arrests aren’t limited to AbzasMedia employees

On November 28, another journalist, the head of the internet television channel Kanal 13, Aziz Orujov, was detained, and a search was conducted at his house. Bahruz Bayramov, Aziz Orujov’s lawyer, informed Meydan TV that Orujov faces criminal charges under Article 188.2 – unauthorized construction or installation work on a land plot without property rights, use, or lease.

The Sabail District Court ordered the pre-trial detention of Aziz Orujov for 3 months. His brother, Anar Orujov, reminds him that Aziz was once arrested before, and he also calls the current arrest unlawful.

Aziz Orujov – Illustration: Meydan TV

On December 4, civil activist and former police officer Ilkhamiz Guliyev was arrested.

In early October, in an anonymous interview with AbzasMedia, he talked about how the police plant drugs on “undesirable” individuals. A few days later, he was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention on charges of minor hooliganism and disobedience to the police. A month after his release, Ilkhamiz Guliyev was arrested again, this time on charges of drug trafficking.

His relatives reported that during the arrest, the police attacked Guliyev, resulting in a head injury. He was also allegedly subjected to torture while in custody.

Several experts and representatives of civil society associate these arrests with the cooling of relations between Azerbaijan and the United States. On November 15, 2023, during his speech in Congress, US Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien reminded about the operation carried out by Azerbaijan in September in Karabakh and expressed disapproval of further suspension of the 907th Amendment. He linked this move to the lack of progress in peaceful negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The 907th Amendment, which has intensified tensions between the two countries since 1992, was an alteration made by the US Congress to the “Freedom Support Act,” citing the “occupation of Karabakh and the blockade of the Armenian population living there” as reasons. This amendment prohibited direct US government assistance to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan was the only post-Soviet country deprived of this assistance. However, in 2001, the US Senate granted the president the authority to suspend the application of this amendment, a step taken by all American presidents since then.

After the meeting with Ilham Aliyev on December 6, James O’Brien referred to this meeting on his Twitter post as the “first constructive conversation about the future of relations between the US and Azerbaijan.”

James O’Brien: “Establishing a strong, dignified peace in the region will create historic opportunities.”

Human rights advocate Rasul Jafarov highlights that due to worsening relations with other countries, Azerbaijan is punishing its citizens. He believes that alternative methods should be chosen to ease tensions between states:

“I think the arrests of AbzasMedia employees should be viewed in this context. It’s not a revelation because it was already announced in the media – I mean the report on AZTV [Azerbaijan’s state television – ed.] – implying that since these countries don’t allow us to make a peace agreement, we’ll start doing something against them too. In this context, these arrests took place. Our position, as a civil society organization, is that geopolitical situations or conflicts should never lead to violations of rights and freedoms. Labeling someone as an agent, working for foreign interests, or representing the interests of other countries – such an approach, we consider utterly wrong.”

International organizations have urged the Azerbaijani government to immediately halt the persecution of AbzasMedia and release the arrested journalists.

The International Media Institute, Amnesty International, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and several other international human rights organizations have issued a statement condemning the repression against AbzasMedia and demanding the release of the detained journalists.

“We strongly urge the government of Azerbaijan to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

On December 2, the US expressed “deep concern” over the ongoing arrests of journalists in Azerbaijan. Five staff members of independent media outlets were arrested within 10 days.

“We have seen the preliminary reports. As before, we are deeply concerned about the arrest of journalists in Azerbaijan,” said a representative of the State Department in Washington to a Turan correspondent after the detention of Nargiz Absalova.

“We strongly urge the government of Azerbaijan to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights and freedoms of those exercising freedom of expression.”

On November 28, temporary charges d’affaires of the United States and Germany, as well as the ambassador of France to Azerbaijan, were separately summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As reported on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomats were informed that the AbzasMedia news portal, with the participation of organizations registered in these countries and the embassies themselves, conducted illegal financial operations. A serious protest was lodged in this regard.

It was noted that USAID, FreedomNow, New Democracy Fund, and other organizations, in violation of grant rules, illegally transferred funds to the territory of Azerbaijan, making an unlawful contribution to the activities of AbzasMedia.

The Azerbaijani government generally asserts that in Azerbaijan, no one is persecuted for their political views and convictions. Arrested journalists and socio-political activists are simply facing lawful penalties for their actions.

With the support of MediaSet.

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