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U.S. Congressman 'Deeply Troubled' By Raid Of RFE/RL In Azerbaijan

  • RFE/RL

Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged "leaders in Baku to allow RFE/RL to resume its work and to stop harassment of RFE/RL employees."

Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged "leaders in Baku to allow RFE/RL to resume its work and to stop harassment of RFE/RL employees."

The leading Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs has said he is "deeply troubled" by Azerbaijan's December 26 raid on RFE/RL's Baku bureau and subsequent forced questioning of employees.

In a December 30 statement, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel of New York urged "leaders in Baku to allow RFE/RL to resume its work and to stop harassment of RFE/RL employees."

Investigators from the state prosecutor's office on December 26 raided the Baku bureau of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq, confiscating documents, files, computer hard drives, and other equipment.

Twelve bureau employees were detained on December 27 and 28 for questioning and were released only after signing a document promising not to disclose details about the investigation.

Since then, prosecutors have continued to summon other current and former employees of Radio Azadliq.

Local and international activists and organizations have criticized Baku in recent months for cracking down on nongovernmental organizations and independent media.

Earlier on December 30, two activists with the NIDA youth organization who were labelled as political prisoners were released from custody in Azerbaijan under a presidential pardon.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned 87 people, including several that international rights groups have labeled political prisoners, under a decree issued on December 29.

Zaur Gurbanli and Uzeyir Mammadov were arrested in early 2013 after taking part in an antigovernment rally and were convicted of illegal weapons possession and organizing mass disorder.

Gurbanli was serving an eight-year term, while Mammadov was serving seven years.

Aliyev's pardon also included jailed journalists Avaz Zeynalov and Serdar Alibeyli, as well as 18 people arrested during January 2013 unrest in the town of Ismayilli and eight people arrested while protesting a ban against Islamic head scarves in 2012.

According to international human rights organizations, there are still more than 90 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on December 29 denounced Azerbaijan’s targeting of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau as "another severe blow to free media and free expression" in the former Soviet republic.

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on media freedom, said in a statement that Baku "must allow" work to resume by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service "and safeguard the existence of critical voices in the country."

Authorities in Azerbaijan have not released any information about the investigation of RFE/RL or about the possible charges being considered.

The Russian news agency Interfax on December 30 quoted an unidentified source "close to the inquiry" as as saying "a number of serious financial irregularities have already been uncovered."

The source added that officials are looking into possible money laundering and theft.

The Interfax report describes a contract that Azadliq had with the newspaper "Think Differently" to pay for the publication of articles at advertising rates.

Shahvalad Chobanoglu, editor of "Think Differently," issued a statement on December 30 saying there was nothing illegal about the arrangement.

He said the paper functioned legally as it was officially registered and its taxes were paid.

Chobanoglu added that it was distributed for free

"Now the Azerbaijan government is trying to portray this legal activity as a crime," he said. "But in reality we are being punished for just 'thinking differently.'"

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