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Azerbaijani journalist Shirin Abbasov, 19, is being held incommunicado.  © Meydan TV

(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities illegally detained a TV journalist on September 16, 2015, and have neither allowed him to see a lawyer nor brought him before a judge, Human Rights Watch said today.

Colleagues fear for the safety and well-being of the journalist, Shirin Abbasov, a regular contributor to independent online television station Meydan TV. The authorities should release Abbasov immediately and take swift action against those responsible for the violations of his right to liberty and security and basic detainee rights.

“Holding Shirin Abbasov in incommunicado arbitrary detention is outrageous and raises real concern that he may be ill-treated,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is an escalation in the Azerbaijan government’s campaign to silence independent media.” 

Officials involved in Abbasov’s unlawful arrest should be investigated for abuse of power, misconduct, and potential criminal offenses, Human Rights Watch said.

A person close to Abbasov’s family with knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that officials from the Interior Ministry’s organized crime unit have confirmed that Abbasov is being held at their headquarters, known as “bandotdel.” Azerbaijani law only allows authorities to hold detainees in temporary detention facilities such as police stations for 72 hours.

The source said that despite his lawyer’s repeated attempts to see Abbasov, officials have not allowed anyone to see him since a brief meeting with his mother on September 17.

A Meydan TV staff member said that Abbasov, 19, went missing at about 2 p.m. on September 16 on his way to university. His family and colleagues grew concerned when they could not reach him and began to search for him. Shortly after midnight, officials from the Interior Ministry’s organized crime unit confirmed to Abbasov’s family that he was in their custody. They refused to explain the reason for Abbasov’s arrest, saying they would tell his parents at a meeting the next morning. At the meeting, Interior Ministry officials claimed that Abbasov did not want to see them or anyone else.

Officials also told Abbasov’s lawyer that Abbasov refused his assistance. Under Azerbaijani law, a detainee must be allowed to meet with his lawyer and refuse legal assistance in writing.

According to Meydan TV, on September 17 officials claimed that they took Abbasov to the Narimanski district court in Baku, which sentenced him to 30 days in administrative detention allegedly for resisting police. However, the individual with knowledge of the case said that Abbasov’s lawyer had requested documentation of the proceedings, but the court responded that it had no record of administrative or criminal cases against Abbasov.

Abbasov’s lawyer told Meydan TV that he was concerned that authorities could use Abbasov’s isolation and detention to put pressure on him to confess to trumped-up charges. Incommunicado detention, as well as violating due process rights, places detainees at an enhanced risk of ill-treatment.

Access to an independent lawyer and contact with relatives are critical safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. Failure to bring Abbasov before a judge to rule on his continued custody is a clear violation of protections against arbitrary detention guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party.

“There is absolutely nothing that justifies denying Shirin Abbasov contact with his lawyer or holding him in the police station for days beyond the legal limit,” Buchanan said. “This leaves the strongest impression that the Azerbaijan government has no actual reason for detaining Abbasov and in fact has something to hide.”

Abbasov’s detention is the latest attack on Abbasov and other Meydan TV staff and contributors, Human Rights Watch said.

In early September, prosecutors questioned Abbasov, allegedly in connection with a death of a local man in the city of Mingechevir after he had been questioned by police. The incident sparked protests that Meydan TV covered, although Abbasov did not go to Mingechevir. Meydan TV reported that Abbasov said that while he had been officially summoned in relation to the Mingechevir case as a witness, he was also questioned about Meydan TV’s activities. Officials also questioned several other Meydan TV journalists in early September about the Mingechevir events.

In June, authorities prevented Abbasov and three other Meydan TV journalists from leaving Azerbaijan as they attempted to attend an international event abroad. Officials reportedly told them they were on a blacklist and barred from exit, although later said that it was an administrative error.

In the last week, authorities have twice taken other Meydan TV journalists, Ayten Farhadova, Izolda Aghayeva, and Sevinc Vaqifqizi, into custody, interrogated them, and then released them, on September 20 at the Baku airport and again on September 22.

The journalists told another Meydan TV staff member that the officers interrogated them about Meydan TV’s activities, management, salary structure, and the coverage of clashes between police and protesters in Mingachevir. Authorities did not permit the journalists to contact their families, despite a requirement under Azerbaijani law allowing those detained to make a phone call after three hours in custody.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on September 18 police searched the Baku apartment of another Meydan TV contributor, Javid Abdullayev, and confiscated computers and cameras. On September 16, the same day as Abbasov’s detention, police from the organized crime unit also detained Aytaj Akhmedova, a freelance journalist and regular Meydan TV contributor, and a friend of hers, and questioned them for five hours, then released them. Akhmedova told colleagues that investigators also asked her about Meydan TV’s activities, management, and salaries.

These attacks are the latest in the government of Azerbaijan’s relentless crackdown against dissenting voices.

On September 1, a court in Baku sentenced leading investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova to seven-and-a-half years in prison in a trial that violated international standards and was in retaliation for her critical reporting on corruption. Ismayilova is a 2015 recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism, in recognition of her exemplary courage as a journalist and human rights activist in the face of the unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

The government should immediately release all wrongfully imprisoned journalists and human rights defenders and end its crackdown on free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

“The attacks on journalists working with Meydan TV, one of the last sources of independent news about Azerbaijan, shows that the government is going to great lengths to stamp out any remaining critical voices,” Buchanan said. “The European Union and Azerbaijan’s other international partners should call for Abbasov’s urgent release and make clear that there is a price to pay for trampling fundamental freedoms.”

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