Azerbaijan arrests independent journalists amidst claims of foreign espionage

Azerbaijan arrests independent journalists amidst claims of foreign espionage
Sevinj Vagifgizi, editor-in-chief (left) and Ulvi Hasanli, the director and co-founder (right) / Human Rights Watch
By bne IntelliNews November 23, 2023

The Azerbaijan regime has cracked down on Abzas Media, an independent news outlet recognised for its investigations into corruption and human rights abuses.

Ulvi Hasanli, the director and co-founder, and Sevinj Vagifgizi, the editor-in-chief, have been detained on charges of smuggling, following a police raid on the news outlet's office in which €40,000 was allegedly found. Abzas Media contests this claim, saying that the money was planted. The Khatai District Court has remanded Hasanli and Vagifgizi in custody for some four months.

This crackdown follows a state media campaign alleging that there is a "network of U.S. spies" operating in the country that needs to be "cleansed". This campaign coincides with a period of strained relations between the U.S. and Azerbaijan, particularly over the peace talks with Armenia.

A typical example is a pro-government outlet called,  which has alleged there is a comprehensive conspiracy by the United States to undermine Azerbaijan's national sovereignty through various means, including supporting opposition organisations, NGOs, and independent media.

It accuses USAID and similar international bodies of manipulating local communities to create public dissent against the government. The article specifically targets "radical feminism" as a tool of Western influence, alleging that these movements oppose national values and traditions.

The article directly implicates Abzas Media and its personnel in these supposed activities. It accuses Vagifgizi of being a leader in "radical feminism" and alleges that Abzas Media distributes disinformation with an anti-Azerbaijani content. Hasanli is also accused of working with "radical feminists" and being involved in opposition activities.

The article also attacks fact-checking platform FaktYoxla  of only fact-checking pro-government voices.

Abzas Media's investigative work – particularly its revelations of corruption schemes by high-ranking officials and close associates of President Ilham Aliyev – has evidently irked the government, according to independent Azerbaijani journalists.

The outlet's focus on corruption surrounding Azerbaijan's takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh has further exacerbated tensions with the authorities. In a voice-recorded statement, Hasanli revealed that during his detention, he was questioned about why the news outlet’s reporting did not celebrate Azerbaijan's military advances and instead concentrated on exposing corruption.

The U.S. State Department and Amnesty International have raised concerns about the detentions and the alleged mistreatment of the journalists.

The crackdown has also been criticized by journalists, who view these actions as an attack on freedom of speech and the press.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil, for instance, described the arrests as a "legal absurdity" and a reflection of the Azerbaijani leadership's insecurity.

A collective of independent Azerbaijani journalists have expressed their grave concerns about the ongoing suppression of freedom of speech and expression by political authorities. They argue that the nation is moving towards a complete eradication of these fundamental freedoms, contrary to the rights outlined in the Azerbaijani Constitution and international conventions.

The journalists highlight the recent restrictive media law and the aggressive actions against free speech, exemplified by the crackdown on Abzas Media.

They criticized these actions as baseless and in violation of constitutional and international legal standards, calling on Azerbaijani authorities to cease these unfounded accusations and repressive measures. Additionally, they urge international organisations to hold Azerbaijan accountable for these violations and to take concrete actions against such illegal steps.

The group holds President Ilham Aliyev responsible for these repressions, directly contradicting his public declarations of media freedom in Azerbaijan.

The statement is supported by 42 signatories, including editors, journalists, and media personnel from various independent media outlets in Azerbaijan.

Vagifgizi and Hasanli are not the only journalists arrested. One of the employees of Abzas – Mahammad Kekalov, a journalist and disability rights activist – was also reportedly detained in his home by police officers, who confiscated his personal belongings, including his computer.

"If Mahammad has been arrested, that’s really bad news. He’s a great guy doing fantastic work to support disability rights and help disabled people. I was proud to support him and his work. He should be helped, not hindered, and I hope and urge that no harm comes to him," former British ambassador to Azerbaijan James Sharp tweeted.

According to lawyer Samed Rahimli, Kekalov is being held incommunicado and reportedly even the Ombudsperson's Office has failed to locate his whereabouts.