Human rights activists say a recent spate of arrests targeting relatives of prominent journalists in Azerbaijan is a further alarming twist in the government’s crackdown on freedom of speech.
Family members of Emin Milli, head of the online Meydan TV, and Ganimat Zahid, editor-in-chief of the opposition Azadliq newspaper, have been arrested. Some have been charged with possession of drugs, a common tactic the authorities use to tarnish the reputation of opponents.
The past year has seen increased pressure on journalists as well as human rights defenders, NGO activists and other independent voices. (See
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On July 23, Milli’s brother-in-law Nazim Agabeyov was arrested on drugs charges, a case the journalist described as “absurd” and a clear attempt at intimidation.
“This is a widespread practice of [President] Ilham Aliyev. He punishes your family and takes them hostage because of you,” said Milli, who now lives in Germany.
Milli also alleged that the minister for youth and sport, Azad Rahimov, had issued threats against him, and noted that employees of Meydan TV had recently been prevented from travelling abroad. (See
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Milli said he would not allow this kind of pressure to deter him.
“I was held in custody for 16 months,” he said. “While I was imprisoned, my father died….The pressure had only one goal – to silence me and Meydan TV. Even if they kill me and my family, I will not stop my activities, and I won’t stop telling the truth.”
At the end of June, a group of Milli’s relatives denounced him as a traitor in an open letter to President Aliev. Published on the Teref.info site on June 30, the letter said the signatories distanced themselves from Milli’s “subversive activities” and claimed he was hostile to Azerbaijan’s “great success, development, prosperity, and integration with foreign countries”. The letter was notionally from 23 people, but parts of it were in the first person, referring to the author as a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party.
Relatives of Azadliq editor Zahid have also been targeted. First, police began surveillance of his 87-year-old mother’s home in the village of Meysari, in the Shamakhi district. Then, on July 18, his nephew Tural, who lives in the same village, was accused of insulting the police and was issued with a 30-day detention order.
Another nephew, Rufat, was arrested in Baku on July 20 and could now faces a prison term of between five to 12 years.
“Supposedly, five grams of heroin were found in his car. This is an obvious smear,” Rufat’s father Farasat told RFE/RL radio.
Also on July 20, Zahid’s cousin Rovshan, who lives in the village of Gurdtepe in Shamakhi, was arrested and sentenced to 25 days in detention.
“The police came to the house and ‘found’ drugs in Rovshan’s pocket,” Agasadiq Zahidov, a cousin of the arrested man, explained. “Rovshan’s wife realised the drugs came into the house with the police and were planted there, so she protested. But no one paid attention to her protestations.”
Zahid, who has lived in France since 2011, also presents the Azerbaijani Hour programme on a Turkish satellite television station. In a statement, Zahid said that the pressure on his relatives was clearly intended to silence him.
“The fate of the more than 100 political prisoners in custody in Azerbaijan is no less important than the fate of my family. I describe the repressive methods the authorities are using against my family as state terror. I assume that in the course of this campaign, my relatives may be not only arrested but killed.”
“I do not intend to stop my activities because of this pressure. I will not do that,” Zahid continued. “On the contrary, given the authorities’ hostile reaction to a TV programme [Azerbaijani Hour] that’s broadcast for only two hours a week, and their behaviour which can be classed as terror, I have been looking into the possibility of broadcasting more frequently.”
Opposition groups and political exiles in Europe came together to call on the government to stop harassing Zahid’s family.
The Musavat party said the government must “put an end to this policy of repression, and release political prisoners immediately and unconditionally”.
There was also international condemnation, including from the US State Department, which told Voice of America, “We are deeply concerned about the restrictions imposed on peaceful civil society and the arrests of journalists and civil society activists. We urge the government of Azerbaijan to respect the universal rights of its citizens, to ensure their right to a fair trial, and to allow them to express their views freely.”
Johann Bihr, head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the media rights group Reporters Without Borders, said that “there can be no doubt that this wave of arrests is designed to pressure Zahid into terminating his journalistic activities. We urge the authorities to put an immediate end to these trumped-up prosecutions and to abandon the practice of collective punishment.”
In its annual Nations in Transit report published in late July, the Washington-based group Freedom House gave Azerbaijan the third worst democracy score of any former Soviet republic, after Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
“Ilham Aliyev’s regime brought a new intensity to its multiyear crackdown on activists and journalists who threatened to expose official corruption and other abuses. Many were jailed during the year on fabricated charges like hooliganism or possession of weapons and drugs,” the report said.
At an event to mark National Press Day on July 22, President Aliyev said the Azerbaijani media was completely free and independent. As part of the celebrations, he presented 200 journalists with medals and other honours.
Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living abroad.
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