A U.S. State Department official says Washington is "concerned" by a raid on the Baku bureau of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, during which investigators from the state prosecutor's office shut down the premises after seizing company materials.
The investigators, who entered the bureau on the morning of December 26 accompanied by armed police officers, ransacked the company safe and confiscated computers and official stamps.
They also ordered staff members to leave the building, after holding them in a room for several hours without telephone or computer access.
Several staff members have since been summoned for questioning.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including RFE/RL, condemned the raid and closure of the Baku office.
“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."
Prosecutors say the raid is part of an ongoing investigation into RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service as a foreign-funded entity.
RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
Kenan Aliyev, the director of the Azerbaijani Service, said the raid is part of an overall crackdown on free media in Azerbaijan.
"The operation of our bureau is paralyzed in Baku," he said. "There has been a long ongoing crackdown on the media and NGOs in Azerbaijan, including the arrest of Khadija Ismayilova, the host of our show and our contributor. We view this as part of this ongoing campaign against independent media."
Prosecutors ransacked a safe in RFE/RL's Baku office and confiscated company equipment and documentation.
In Washington, a U.S. State Department official said the United States is "concerned by reports that employees of the RFE/RL bureau in Baku have been detained in their offices and questioned while the premises were searched by police."
"The reasons for the questioning and search are unclear,” the official told RFE/RL on customary condition of anonymity. "We call on the responsible authorities to conduct a transparent investigation in keeping with the law and Azerbaijan's international commitment to protecting media freedom."
The official added that Washington hopes that "Azerbaijani authorities share our conviction that a free and independent press is critical to the well-being of the nation and will act in accordance with that belief."
The representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, called the raid "unacceptable," adding in a December 26 tweet that "the crackdown on freedom of expression" and media freedom "continues in Azerbaijan."
The operation also drew sharp criticism from independent media freedom watchdogs.
Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, said words "fail for describing the scale of the crackdown under way in Azerbaijan."
"President Ilham Aliyev’s government is methodically crushing each of the remaining independent news outlets one by one," Bihr said in a December 26 statement. "International bodies and Azerbaijan’s foreign partners need to respond firmly to such determined ruthlessness."
The raid comes three weeks after Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL, was jailed in Baku.
Ismayilova is currently being held on two months' pre-trial detention on criminal charges of inciting a former RFE/RL contributor to attempt suicide.
Ismayilova's supporters have rejected the charges as spurious and motivated by her critical reporting on the Azerbaijani government. The BBG has called on Azerbaijan to release Ismayilova.
Amnesty International has declared Ismayilova a prisoner of conscience, "detained solely for exercising her right to freedom of expression."
Aliyev says prosecutors have already attempted to use Ismayilova's arrest as a pretext for a broader crackdown on the Baku bureau, which remains one of the few independent media outlets in Azerbaijan.
The prosecutor's office on December 17 delivered a letter to the bureau requesting employment and salary information about both Ismayilova and the former colleague in question.
It also requested the names of all bureau employees, including freelancers, for possible questioning in connection with the case.
Ismayilova has published numerous reports investigating corrupt deals tied to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family.
Presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev in early December issued a 60-page statement accusing Ismayilova of displaying a "destructive attitude toward well-known members of the Azerbaijani community."
Mehdiyev also accused RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service of working "for a foreign secret service."
Azerbaijani prosecutors have sealed shut RFE/RL's Baku bureau after ordering staff to leave.
The crackdown on Ismayilova and the Baku bureau comes amid a sweep of arrests and closures that critics say are aimed at silencing antigovernment voices.
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.
Yunus, 59, and her husband, Arif, have both been held in pretrial detention since July and August, respectively, on charges of treason and other crimes.
Yunus, who suffers from diabetes and kidney disease, has complained of physical abuse and denial of medical treatment while in detention. Her lawyers say she is in dangerously ill health.
The West has criticized what is seen as a growing crackdown on government critics in energy-rich Azerbaijan.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski told RFE/RL last week that Washington has been involved in "very serious discussions" with Azerbaijani officials about the recent detentions of the Yunuses, Ismayilova, and others.
Malinowski said U.S. officials have made it clear that Azerbaijan's relationship with the United States is "jeopardized by the crackdown on civil society."
WATCH: Tom Malinowski On Baku's Crackdown On Civil Society
In addition to arrests, Azerbaijani prosecutors have raided a number of so-called foreign entities, including nongovernmental organizations like IREX, the National Democratic Institute, and Oxfam.
All three NGOs were subsequently shut down. IREX, which operates in 125 countries promoting democratic reforms, became the latest to end operations in September after Baku authorities froze its bank assets as part of what prosecutors called a "criminal investigation."
RFE/RL editor-in-chief and co-CEO Nenad Pejic condemned the raid of the Baku office as a "flagrant violation of every international commitment and standard Azerbaijan has pledged to uphold."
"The order comes from the top as retaliation for our reporting and as a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL," he added.
"This is not the first time that a regime has sought to silence us, and we will continue our work to support Azeris' basic right of free access to information and to report the news to audiences that need it."