The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum has urged the Azerbaijani authorities to stop the wave of arrests and ongoing crackdown on independent media and civil society and put an end to the growing tendency to prosecute them on bogus charges.
The Forum’s the Steering Committee yesterday released a statement saying that it joined the international community in calling the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release journalists Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinj Vagifqizi, Mahammad Kekalov, as well as Gubad Ibadoghlu, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, and all political prisoners and human rights defenders currently behind bars.
On 20 November 2023, Ulvi Hasanli, the director of independent media platform Abzas Media, was arrested and charged with smuggling under Article 206.3.2. of the Criminal Code (smuggling as a group). In a statement published by Abzas Media on Facebook, the outlet highlights that the arrest is most likely linked to a series of investigations led by Hasanli and his team that expose elite corruption within the high spheres of the government. He is one of the few outspoken critics against the 2022 Media Law and its effect on media freedoms in the country.
On 21 November 2023, Sevinj Vagifgzi, the Editor in Chief of Abzas Media was also detained while returning to Azerbaijan from Istanbul. Her house was searched, but no illegal items were found. Like Hasanli, Vagifgzi is also being charged under the same Article 206.3.2 of the Criminal Code (smuggling as a group).
On the same day of Hassanli’s arrest, Mahammad Kekalov, a young journalist and disability rights activist, was also forcibly taken by plain-clothed police officers from his home. Similar to the case of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev‘s arrest in December 2022, Kekalov was detained shortly after his return to Baku from the EaP CSF’s Annual Assembly held in Brussels on 13-16 November 2023. According to the statement released by the Steering Committee, Kekalov’s family and friends have not been given any information about his whereabouts following his detention.
“These recent arrests fall into Azerbaijani authorities’ troubling pattern of wielding charges related to drug dealing, illegal drug possession and foreign currency smuggling as tools to falsely accuse and stifle dissenting voices,” says the statement.
The Steering Committee urged the European Union and Member States to consistently uphold EU democratic values and human rights when engaging with the Azerbaijani authorities and government and reconsider its strategic partnership on energy.
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