WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department says it is "deeply troubled" by the detention of the director of Azerbaijan’s independent Turan News Agency and urged his immediate release.
“We are deeply troubled by the August 24 arrest and three-month pretrial detention of Mehman Aliyev, the prominent editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan’s only remaining independent media outlet," the department said in a statement on August 26.
“Other restrictive actions against Turan, including freezing its bank accounts and initiating tax-evasion charges against it, are also troubling,” it added.
The statement said the actions of the government of Azerbaijan “to curtail freedom of press and to further restrict freedom of expression are the latest in a negative trend that includes the government’s May decision to block access to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other independent media websites.”
The State Department urged the government to “immediately release” Aliyev, along with “all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms, in accordance with its international obligations and OSCE commitments.”
Azerbaijani authorities on August 25 ordered Mehman to be sent to nearly three months of detention pending trial on tax-evasion and abuse-of-powers charges.
The director had been detained a day earlier, about two weeks after the Tax Ministry on August 7 initiated the criminal tax-evasion probe into Turan, which has often reported critically of the government and its leaders.
The authorities alleged that the agency owed 37,000 manats ($21,500) in taxes for 2014-16.
On August 18, Aliyev told RFE/RL that all of Turan's bank accounts had been frozen by the authorities 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, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003.
After Aliyev's detention and the freezing of its accounts, Turan in an August 25 statement announced it would be suspending operations starting September 1, with the hope of resuming operations at some point in the future.
Along with the U.S. State Department, the Azerbaijani authorities’ actions drew immediate rebuke from international rights groups and foreign leaders.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, on August 25 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.
On August 26, Turan reported that a "Public Committee for Freedom for Mehman Aliyev" had been formed after a meeting of representatives of "political forces, civil society, media, and families of political prisoners" at the opposition Musavat Party headquarters.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Baku correspondent Khadija Ismayilova, Turan News Agency, and AFP