RFE/RL employees in the Azerbaijani capital Baku say they are being harassed by state prosecutors one day after their bureau was ransacked and ordered closed by investigators.
Kenan Aliyev, the director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, says dozens of full-time and freelance workers have been summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning related to their employment.
Most have refused to comply until they are able to have a lawyer present.
State inspectors on December 26 raided RFE/RL's Baku bureau, seizing computers and personnel files and sealing the office shut.
They said the raid was part of an ongoing investigation into the bureau as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
As many as 15 journalists and bloggers are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan, including Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor.
Background: Azerbaijan Tightens Screws On Civil Society
Court officials on December 26 rejected Ismayilova's request to have her two-month prison detention reduced to house arrest.
Reporters Without Borders has condemned the raid on the Baku bureau of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service as the latest attempt to stamp out media pluralism in the country.
Johann Bihr, who heads the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk for the Paris-based watchdog, said the government of President Ilham Aliyev is "methodically crushing" each of Azerbaijan's remaining independent news outlets.
"Words fail for describing the scale of the crackdown under way," he added.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 160th out of 180 countries in its 2014 press freedom index.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission -- urged the Azerbaijani authorities to "immediately end their harassment of journalists."
"Yesterday’s raid on RFE/RL’s Baku bureau continues the recent and deeply disturbing trend of the government of Azerbaijan to silence dissenting voices within the country, and comes hard on the heels of the recent arrest and pre-trial detention of Khadija Ismayilova," the senator said in a statement on December 27.
The closure of RFE/RL's Baku bureau also sparked criticism by the U.S. State Department and the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting.
"This unwarranted action is an escalation of the Azeri government's abusive attempt to intimidate independent journalists and repress free media," said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. "We call on the authorities to immediately allow RFE/RL to resume its important journalistic work from Baku."
The State Department press office said it was "deeply disturbed" by the raid and called on Azerbaijani authorities to respect the country's international commitment to protecting media freedom.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, which is known inside Azerbaijan as Radio Azadliq, has been banned from broadcasting since 2009 but continues to reach the public through its website.
Director Aliyev said the operation of the bureau was "incapacitated" but that the station intended to continue operating.
Azerbaijani prosecutors have sealed shut RFE/RL's Baku bureau after ordering staff to leave.
The closure of the Baku bureau follows similar measures taken recently against nongovernmental organizations groups supporting free-media efforts in Azerbaijan.
The offices of the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, the Media Rights Institute, and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) were all raided in August and sealed shut.
Additional NGOs like the National Democratic Institute and Oxfam have also been closed following similar raids.
A number of political activists have also been detained in recent months on charges their supporters say are politically motivated.
Azerbaijan is currently believed to be holding as many as 100 political prisoners, including Leyla Yunus, the director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy and one of the country's best known human rights activists.