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Baku Moves News Agency Director From Pretrial Detention To House Arrest

  • RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- The director of Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency has been released from pretrial detention on condition that he remain under house arrest until his trial, which has not yet been scheduled.

Fuad Agayev, a lawyer for defendant Mehman Aliyev, confirmed that Aliyev had been released in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on September 11.

Aliyev told Reuters in a telephone interview that "I'm not under arrest any more. I consider this decision as positive... I'm glad that mistake has been amended."

Harlem Desir, the media-freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement welcoming the release to house arrest as a "positive step," but again urging the authorities to "drop all charges" against Aliyev. Desir added that the OSCE was following the case closely.

Aliyev was charged by the Azerbaijani authorities in August on allegations of tax evasion and abuse of powers. He denies any wrongdoing.

Authorities in Baku also have frozen all of the Turan news agency's bank accounts during an ongoing investigation.

Rights groups say Aliyev's detention and the financial sanctions against the Turan news agency are part of a wider crackdown on independent media, journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and others who criticize Azerbaijan's government.

Turan was established in 1990 and has published online reports in Azerbaijani, English, and Russia. It has also cooperated with leading international news agencies about stories in Azerbaijan.

Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus director of Human Rights Watch, said the case against Aliyev was "the latest in a vicious crackdown on critical media in the country."

"Using bogus tax-related charges to jail critical journalists is nothing new for Azerbaijan," Gogia said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) said Baku "has repeatedly used politically motivated criminal charges as a weapon to silence independent and opposition media."

Nina Ognianova, CPJ's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said the case against Aliyev and Turan was "politically motivated."

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says Baku was using "tax-evasion allegations to harass" Turan.

Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Aliyev's detention has been strongly criticized by the U.S. State Department, which has called for his immediate release.

Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, and the French Foreign Ministry also have expressed concern about the prosecution of Aliyev and Turan.

Also on September 11, Azerbaijan's state-controlled APA news agency reported that 14 people who were among dozens convicted in a high-profile Nardaran case in 2016-17 of public calls to overthrow the government and inciting ethnic, religious, and social hatred had been granted early release. No details were provided.

On September 11, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Russian-Israeli blogger Aleksandr Lapshin, who was sentenced to three years in jail in July for traveling to the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh without Baku's permission. Lapshin will soon be deported to Israel, state media reported.

Ilham Aliyev -- who has ruled the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003 -- is on RSF's list of so-called "press freedom predators."

RSF says more than a dozen other journalists, bloggers, and media workers are "imprisoned in connection with the provision of news and information -- usually on trumped-up charges."

Dozens of journalists have fled the country in recent years to escape the crackdown, according to RSF.

With reporting by Reuters
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