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RFE/RL Journalists Detained, Questioned By Azerbaijani Authorities

Staff from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service were held in their Baku offices by state prosecutors, who said they had a court order to close the bureau down.
Staff from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service were held in their Baku offices by state prosecutors, who said they had a court order to close the bureau down.

Twelve employees of RFE/RL's Baku bureau have been forcibly detained by the Azerbaijani authorities for questioning, with more ordered to appear for questioning on December 29 or face similar detentions.

All 12 were released without charge on December 28 after being questioned for up to 12 hours in the latest crackdown against the activities of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq.

It came two days after state prosecutors ransacked and shut down the Baku bureau of the U.S.-government-funded broadcaster.

Those physically summoned for questioning were not allowed representation by a lawyer.

Prosecutors told an attorney for Azadliq staff that he had been stripped of his right to work with RFE/RL and also must submit to questioning.

Eight other current and former employees of Azadliq were also told they would be forcibly detained if they refused to report for questioning on December 29.

RFE/RL Editor in Chief and co-CEO Nenad Pejic condemned the action, saying Azerbaijani authorities were "terrorizing" staff and their families.

Authorities began to raid the Baku homes of the RFE/RL employees late at night on December 27.

Kamran Mahmudov, the anchor of a daily radio show for Radio Azadliq, was taken from his apartment early in the morning of December 28 after police forced their way into his home.

Mahmudov's wife, Latifa, said he was taken from their apartment without time to put on shoes or outdoor clothing.

Police have also detained Chingiz Sultansoy, the editor of Azadliq's Russian-language website, as well as the bureau's cleaning woman, Matanat Abdinova.

The employees were later escorted to the heavy crimes unit of the state prosecutor's office for questioning.

The forced apprehensions are the latest step in a crackdown on RFE/RL activities in Azerbaijan.

On December 26, inspectors from the prosecutor's office raided the Azadliq bureau. They ransacked the company safe, seized computers, memory sticks, and documents, and sealed the office shut.

Since then, nearly all Azadliq staff members and freelancers have been requested by telephone to appear for questioning.

Many have refused to appear until they can arrange for a lawyer to be present.

One lawyer representing the Azadliq staff said people were being "dragged" to the prosecutor's office "by force and threats."

'Armenian Lobby'

The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.

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."

Meanwhile, in Brussels, a spokesperson for the secretary-general of the Council of Europe said that "the reported 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 working 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.

She and her husband, Arif, are currently being held in pretrial detention on charges including high treason.

The U.S. State Department, the Helsinki Commission, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and Reporters Without Borders have all condemned the raid on RFE/RL.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said in a statement that "the free and independent press in Azerbaijan remains under attack by the very authorities who should be most committed to its protection."

READ MORE: Baku Cracks Down On On Civil Society, Independent Media

Reporters Without Borders 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.

The organization ranked Azerbaijan 160th out of 180 countries in its 2014 press freedom index. ​

Eliminating Critical Voices

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.

The closure of the Baku bureau follows similar measures taken recently against nongovernmental organizations 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 have also been closed following similar raids. ​

Critics have accused Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, of using its energy wealth to ingratiate itself with the West despite its rampant rights abuses.

Azerbaijan in November concluded a six-month presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the leading European organization tasked with upholding human rights values.

The Council of Europe said in a statement on December 28 that it will request the reason and legal justification for this action from the Azerbaijani authorities.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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