Azerbaijan
05.02.24
Urgent Interventions

Azerbaijan: Arbitrary detention of Elnara Gasimova, journalist affiliated with Abzas Media

© Hikmat Gafarzada / Unsplash

URGENT APPEAL- THE OBSERVATORY

AZE 001 / 0224 / OBS 004
Arbitrary detention /
Judicial harassment
Azerbaijan
February 5, 2024


The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Azerbaijan.

Description of the situation:

The Observatory has been informed about the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalist Ms Elnara Gasimova, affiliated with Abzas Media, an independent online media outlet dedicated to investigating and exposing high-level corruption in Azerbaijan.

On January 15, 2024, Elnara Gasimova was arbitrarily arrested at the Baku City Main Police Department, where she had been summoned by the police as a witness in the criminal case instigated against her colleagues from Abzas Media, and charged with “conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully” under Article 206.3.2 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code. On the same day, the Khatai District Court in Baku ordered her pre-trial detention for a period of two months and 17 days. If found guilty, she could face up to eight years of imprisonment.

Ms Gasimova’s detention is part of a larger crackdown on Abzas Media, which has already resulted in the detention of five other journalists, including the director of the media Mr Ulvi Hasanli, its editor in chief Ms Sevinc Vagifgizi, its deputy director and disability rights defender Mr Mahammad Kekalov, journalist Ms Nargiz Absalamova and journalist and financial editor at Turan news agency Mr Hafiz Babali. The six journalists are currently detained at the Baku Detention Centre No. 1, where their detention conditions are of serious concern as they are denied communication with their family members and lawyers.

On November 20, 2023, Ulvi Hasanli was arrested by the police on the charge “conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully” under Article 206.3.2 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code while he was on his way to Baku airport. The police then conducted a search of both his apartment and Abzas Media's premises where they discovered 40.000 Euros in cash. The media outlet's editorial team, including Sevinc Vagifgizi, stated that they suspect this money might have been planted to provide a legal pretext for terminating the media's operations and pressing charges against its employees, as a result of the corruption investigations involving state authorities published by Abzas Media. Ulvi Hasanli reported having been subjected to physical abuse amounting to ill-treatment, including punches and kicks, during his arrest and subsequent interrogation at the Baku City Police Department.

The following day, on November 21, 2023, Sevinc Vagifgizi, was detained by the police upon her return to Baku from Europe, with a subsequent search conducted at her residence. On the same day, the Khatai District Court in Baku issued a four-month pre-trial detention order for Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi. Accused of “conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully” under Article 206.3.2 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code, the journalists could face up to eight years in prison if found guilty. During the raid of Ulvi Hasanli's apartment, authorities seized various items including a computer, a cell phone, an iWatch, and a hard disk. Additionally, a microphone and a hard disk were confiscated from Abzas Media's offices.

On November 21, 2023, Mahammad Kekalov was abducted from his residence in Baku by unidentified individuals in plainclothes who also confiscated his laptop and cell phone. On November 25, 2023, the head of the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs disclosed that he was arrested in relation to the Abzas Media case and had been placed in pre-trial detention, facing the same charges as Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgiki.

On November 30, 2023, Nargiz Absalamova was arrested in Baku, shortly after presenting herself to the police for questioning in relation to the Abzas Media case and was in turn charged with “conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully” under Article 206.3.2 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code. The Khatai District Court in Baku subsequently issued a pre-trial detention order against her on December 1, 2023.

On December 13, 2023, Hafiz Babali was arrested by the Baku police, who subsequently escorted him to his residence in Sumgayit to carry out a search. During the operation, officers seized the journalist's computer, cell phone, and documents, before transporting him to the Baku police department. Hafiz Babali collaborates with Abzas Media where he published his research, including an anti-corruption investigation implicating the head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service. It was later confirmed by a spokesperson from the government that Hafiz Babali's arrest and pre-trial detention was linked to ongoing criminal investigations against Abzas Media, refraining from specifying the charges against him. On November 28, 2023, investigators had already interrogated Hafiz Babali and placed a freeze on his bank accounts.

The Observatory notes with concerns that the arbitrary detention of the six above-mentioned journalists poses a direct threat to the essential role that independent media plays in exposing corruption at the highest levels of government. The Observatory also notes an alarming trend of retaliating against journalists who investigate cases of corruption by specifically accusing them of smuggling money under Article 206.3.2 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code. This attack on independent journalism is all the more worrying in the context of the upcoming presidential elections to be held on February 7, 2024, marking the third consecutive election in which the authorities have resorted to an earlier vote without formal justification. President Aliyev's decision to advance the election, despite the constitutionally set date in November 2025, raises further concerns about democratic principles and the rule of law.

The Observatory underlines that this crackdown against Abzas Media and its journalists takes place in a context of increased repression against human rights defenders and civil society in Azerbaijan. In the face of this repression, on January 24, 2023, the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation were not approved at the first meeting of the winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The basis for this decision was Azerbaijan's failure to meet the fundamental commitments it made when joining the Council of Europe 23 years ago. Reasons cited include Baku's infringement of the organisation's principles, the state of human rights within the country, and the growing number of political prisoners. Prior to this, the Azerbaijani delegation at PACE declared a suspension of cooperation with the organisation for an unspecified duration.

The Observatory condemns the arbitrary detention of Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vagifgizi, Mahammad Kekalov, Nargiz Absalamova and Hafiz Babali, which seems to be only aimed at punishing them for their legitimate human rights activities as journalists investigating and exposing corruption cases.

The Observatory calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop the criminal charges against the six aforementioned journalists and to release them immediately.

Actions requested:

Please write to the authorities of Azerbaijan asking them to:

i. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical integrity and psychological well-being of Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vagifgizi, Mahammad Kekalov, Nargiz Absalamova, and Hafiz Babali and all other journalists and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan;

ii. Grant Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vagifgizi, Mahammad Kekalov, Nargiz Absalamova, and Hafiz Babali access to their lawyers and family members;

iii. Carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the alleged abuses perpetrated against Ulvi Hasanli, while ensuring his protection, and bring the perpetrators to justice in accordance with international standards;

iv. Immediately and unconditionally release Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vagifgizi, Mahammad Kekalov, Nargiz Absalamova, and Hafiz Babali, since their detention is arbitrary as it seems to be merely aimed at punishing them for their legitimate work in exposing corruption;

v. Drop the charges and put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against Elnara Gasimova, Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinc Vagifgizi, Mahammad Kekalov, Nargiz Absalamova, and Hafiz Babali and all other journalists and human rights defenders in the country, and ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals;

    Addresses:

    • Mr. Ilham Aliyev, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, E-mail: office@pa.gov.az, office@apparat.gov.az
    • Mr. Kyamran Aliev, Prosecutor General of the Republic of Azerbaijan, E-mail: info@prosecutor.gov.az
    • Mr. Jeyhun Aziz oglu Bayramov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, E-mail: katiblik@mfa.gov.az
    • Mr. Fikrat F. Mammadov, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan, E-mail: contact@justice.gov.az
    • S.E. M. Galib Israfilov, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of Azerbaijan to the United Nations in Geneva, E-mail: geneva@mission.mfa.gov.az

    Please also write to the diplomatic representations of Azerbaijan in your respective countries.

    ***

    Geneva-Paris, February 5, 2024

    Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.

    The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

    To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:

    • E-mail: alert@observatoryfordefenders.org
    • Tel FIDH: + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18
    • Tel OMCT: + 41 22 809 49 39


    Sign up now

    Subscribe to our latest news & alerts