The U.S. State Department says its concerns about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan are deepening after authorities there raided and closed RFE/RL's Baku bureau and interrogated its employees and contractors.
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told a December 29 news briefing in Washington: “These actions, along with the denial of access to legal counsel during these interrogations, is further cause for concern."
Rathke said the United States is calling on Baku “to adhere to their OSCE and other international commitments to uphold human rights and basic freedoms.”
He added that the raid and closure of the U.S.-government-funded broadcaster's bureau came five days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had raised Washington's concerns about human rights in Azerbaijan during a phone conversation with President Ilham Aliyev.
The offices of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known as Radio Azadliq, were raided on December 26 by investigators from the state prosecutor's office who confiscated documents, files, and equipment before sealing off the premises.
Twelve bureau employees who were detained on December 27 and December 28 for questioning were released only after signing a document vowing not to disclose details about the investigation.
At least eight more current and former employees were summoned to prosecutors on December 29.
Rathke’s comments followed reports earlier in the day that Aliyev had pardoned 87 people convicted of crimes, including several that are widely considered political prisoners.
Rathke called the amnesty “a step in the right direction.”
“We urge Azerbaijan’s authorities to build on these pardons by releasing others incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms,” he said.
Meanwhile, the 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."
Earlier on December 29, Novruz Mammadov, the deputy head of President Ilham Aliyev’s administration and director of its Foreign Relations Department, accused U.S. diplomats of “losing their sense of proportion” over the crackdown on the U.S.-government funded broadcaster.
Mammadov was responding to criticism from the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer, who wrote on December 27 that Baku’s decision to shut down Radio Azadliq was “the behavior of a weak, insecure, corrupt” leadership.
Islam Shikhali, an RFE/RL video reporter, told VOA on December 28 that he had been warned not to discuss his interrogation.
"I was told I shouldn't give any statements but my lawyer told me this is absolutely illegal," Shikhali said. He added that he had been asked "general questions" about salaries and hiring practices.
Zeynal Mammadli, editor in chief of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service, which is called Radio Azadliq locally, criticized the government's "noise, threats, summonses for questioning without notice," and harassment of defense lawyers.
"I am worried about my colleagues," he said. "I am worried about their lives after this -- their salaries, how they will make a living. Some of them have bank loans, mortgages. Losing their jobs will be difficult."
The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity.
Siyavoush Novruzov, a high-ranking member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, defended the raid as a national security issue.
Speaking to local media, he said it was necessary to close the bureau to prevent espionage, adding, "Every place that works for foreign intelligence and the Armenian lobby should be raided."
In Brussels, a spokesperson for the secretary-general of the Council of Europe said the "closure of [the] Radio Free Europe office again raises concerns over freedom of expression in Azerbaijan."
The spokesperson said in a December 28 statement that the Council of Europe "will request the reason and legal justification for this action from the Azerbaijani authorities."
The focus on RFE/RL comes amid a broader crackdown on independent journalists, activists, and nongovernment organizations that have raised criticisms about authorities in the oil-rich Caspian country.
As many as 15 journalists and bloggers are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan, including Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor.
Other detainees include Leyla Yunus, one of the country's best-known human rights activists, whose work includes the promotion of normalized ties with neighboring Armenia.
With reporting by VOA