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Azerbaijan Orders Head Of Independent Turan News Agency Held In Pretrial Detention

Mehman Aliyev (file photo)
Mehman Aliyev (file photo)

Azerbaijani authorities have sent the director of the independent Turan news agency to nearly three months of detention pending trial on tax-evasion and abuse-of-power charges.

The director, Mehman Aliyev, had been detained by the authorities a day earlier, about two weeks after the Tax Ministry said it was initiating a criminal tax-evasion probe into Turan, which has often reported critically of the government and its leaders.

Turan, in an August 25 statement on its website, announced it would be suspending operations starting on September 1 in view of Aliyev's arrest and the freezing of the news agency's bank accounts.

The authorities' actions drew immediate rebuke from international rights groups and foreign leaders.

Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, called on Azerbaijan to "fully abide by its commitments to European Convention on Human Rights" and to "avoid yet another case of unjust deprivation of liberty, which has no place in a democratic society."

In a Twitter post, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) called the charges against Aliyev "a tremendously troubling development," adding that "Azerbaijanis deserve a free and open press."

Reporters Without Borders said the case was based on "trumped-up charges."

"The authorities are stepping up the pressure on Turan because they have been unable to force it to cooperate," said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

"Mehman Aliyev is one of journalism's pioneers in Azerbaijan. His only crime is to have headed the country's last independent media outlet. We demand his immediate release and the withdrawal of all the politically motivated charges against Turan," he added.

Marc Behrendt, director of Eurasia programs at U.S.-based Freedom House, said the "charges against Mehman Aliyev and now his pretrial detention are part of Azerbaijan's effort to silence independent journalism and all critical voices."

On August 7, officials launched a tax-evasion investigation into Turan, alleging the agency owed 37,000 manats ($21,500) in taxes for 2014-16.

Aliyev on August 18 told RFE/RL that authorities had frozen all of Turan's bank accounts amid the criminal probe, which the news agency said was politically motivated.

The news outlet, which was established in 1990, publishes reports in Azeri, English, and Russian and cooperates with leading international news agencies.

It has been a critic of President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father, Heidar Aliyev, in 2003.

In its August 25 statement, Turan said it hoped in the "near future" to resume operations using its "own resources and enthusiasm."

Turan quoted Aliyev's lawyer, Fuad Agayev, as saying on August 24 that the director had voluntarily gone to the Tax Ministry's Department of Tax Crimes office for questioning before he was detained and taken to the Yasamal district police department.

Western governments and international rights watchdogs have criticized Baku for clamping down on independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists. The president has denied the allegations against his government.

In 2014, Azerbaijan criminalized defamation on the Internet, and last year it made online defamation of the president a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

With reporting by Khadija Ismayilova in Baku, Turan, and AFP

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

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