New York, September 19, 2013--Authorities in Azerbaijan must immediately release a journalist who was arrested on Tuesday on fabricated charges and ordered detained for two months, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The press in Azerbaijan must be allowed to freely cover the country's next presidential vote, scheduled for October 9, if it is to be legitimate, CPJ said.
Agents with the National Security Agency, or MNB, arrested Parviz Hashimli, editor of the independent news website Moderator and a reporter for the independent newspaper Bizim Yol, outside the offices of the Moderator. News reports said that agents also raided Hashimli's home in Baku, where they claimed to have found a pistol and several hand grenades. The agents conducted the search without presenting Hashimli's wife with a court order, and in the absence of the journalist's lawyer, the reports said.
MNB agents also raided the newsrooms of the Moderator and Bizim Yol and confiscated their equipment, the independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel reported. Both outlets are known for their coverage of corruption and human rights abuses as well as for their critical reporting on the government of Azerbaijan's authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, who is seeking a third term in October.
The Sabail District Court in Baku on Wednesday ordered Hashimli to be imprisoned for two months pending an investigation into accusations of smuggling and the illegal possession of weapons, according to news reports. The charges carry up to 13 years in jail. Hashimli has denied the allegations.
Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based press freedom group Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, told CPJ that he believed the charges against Hashimli were fabricated, and that his arrest was meant to be a threat for the local press in the run-up to the October election.
Citing Hashimli's lawyer, Huseynov told CPJ that MNB agents had orchestrated the detention of the journalist. He said that a man named Tavvakyul Gurbanov had called Hashimli to meet him outside the Moderator offices in connection to what he said was a personal matter. When Hashimli went outside and sat in Gurbanov's car, MNB agents surrounded the vehicle and searched it. The agents claimed to have found six guns as well as ammunition. News reports said< that Gurbanov said he had brought the weapons on Hashimli's request, which the journalist denied. Hashimli also denied ever having met Gurbanov before.
Gurbanov was also detained and faces similar charges, news reports said.
"We call on Azerbaijani authorities to release Parviz Hashimli and drop all charges against him, and call for all confiscated reporting materials and equipment to be returned to the Bizim Yol and Moderator newsrooms," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "Imprisoning a critical journalist and harassing his publications just weeks before the country's presidential vote is a cowardly move and does a disservice to both Azerbaijan's public and the government."
CPJ research shows that press freedom conditions in Azerbaijan have significantly deteriorated in recent years. CPJ has documented multiple cases in which authorities have fabricated criminal charges, including terrorism, drug possession, and weapons smuggling, in order to rein in critics. At least eight other journalists are imprisoned in the country in retaliation for their reporting on sensitive issues, such as government corruption and human rights abuses.