(Berlin, November 22, 2023) – Azerbaijani authorities have arrested Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi, top leaders of Abzas Media, an independent media outlet known for investigating and exposing corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities also detained Mahammad Kekalov, a social entrepreneur who has also worked with Abzas Media.
On November 21, 2023, Baku’s Khatai district court placed Hasanli and Vagifgizi, Abzas Media’s director and editor-in-chief respectively, in pretrial detention for four months. The journalists face spurious charges of smuggling by an organized group and could be sentenced up to eight years in prison. The court failed to provide any specific facts to justify the lengthy pretrial detention.
“Azerbaijani authorities pursue dubious, punitive criminal charges against their critics,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The arrests of Hasanli, Vagifgizi, and Kekalov are the latest illustrations of this longstanding pattern, and they should be freed at once.”
Masked police officers detained Hasanli on November 20 at his home, ahead of his planned trip to Moldova to participate in an event. A day later, the authorities arrested Vagifgizi when her flight landed at Baku’s Haydar Aliyev International Airport. Police detained Kekalov on November 20 at his home, local media reported. His whereabouts were unclear until November 22, when the Interior Ministry confirmed his detention, stating that he is being investigated in the same criminal case as Hasanli and Vagifgizi. He is awaiting a pretrial detention hearing.
The same day, police searched Hasanli's home and the Abzas Media offices, where they claim to have found 40,000 EUR in cash. Hasanli said the money was planted, and “found” in the office hallway.
In a voice-recorded statement released by Abzas media, Hasanli alleged that police ill-treated him during and following his detention. His lawyer, Zibeyde Sadighova, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that she saw bruises on Hasanli’s face.
The prosecutor’s office alleges that Hasanli, Vagifgizi, and Kekalov conspired to smuggle large amounts of money into Azerbaijan. The journalists flatly deny the allegation. They claim that they have been targeted for their journalistic work; as of this writing Kekalov has not had access to the lawyer his family hired for him. In the Abaz audio recording, Hasanli said that police had asked him why his media outlet did not write about Nagorno -Karabakh, but instead reported on corruption.
In violation of the guarantees against arbitrary detention in the European Convention of Human Rights, the Baku court accepted abstract and unsubstantiated reasons for Hasanli’s and Vagifgizi’s pretrial detention. Investigators contended that Hasanli and Vagifgizi would abscond, interfere with investigation or commit another crime, but presented no evidence to substantiate those claims. They simply listed the reasons established in Azerbaijani law for denying bail.
Pretrial detention should be a measure of the last resort, justified by specific facts and personal circumstances relevant to the accused, Human Rights Watch said.
Abzas Media is an independent online news platform covering Azerbaijan and often reporting on corruption in the country. Hasanli is also a former member of NIDA youth movement, whose board members were prosecuted and jailed on bogus criminal charges in 2014.
Vagifgizi is a well-known Azerbaijan investigative journalist. Previously she documented and exposed high-level corruption, including allegations about the president, his family, and members of his cabinet. Azerbaijani authorities barred her from travel abroad between 2015 and 2019. In 2021, Vagifgizi was one of the journalists whose phones were found to have been compromised by Pegasus, the spyware program developed by an Israeli spyware company, NSO Group, and used by several foreign governments, including Azerbaijan, to target journalists and dissidents.
Kekalov is a social entrepreneur committed to disability rights and inclusion, who has worked with Abzas Media. In 2019 he started an accessible fashion brand designing clothes for and together with people with disabilities.
In a statement shared by Abzas Media on their Facebook page, the platform said, “As Abzas Media we inform you, that Hasanli’s detention, the search at his house and on the premises of the office, are unlawful. All that is happening is directly related to [Hasanli’s] journalism. We demand immediate release of Hasanli.”
Hasanli, Vagifgizi, and Kekalov’s detentions follow the arrest of a renowned scholar and activist, Gubad Ibadoghlu, in July on spurious charges of production, acquisition or sale of counterfeit money and extremism.
“While the charges are different, the intent appears to be the same: muting the government’s critics and sending chilling signals to brave journalists and activists in Azerbaijan,” Gogia said. “The authorities should immediately free Hasanli, Vagifgizi, and Kekalov, and drop the spurious charges.”