Update: 25 August 2017 - A day after being taken into police custody, Mehman Aliyev was placed in pre-trial detention today for a period of at least three months on a charge of “illegal business activity,” which carries a possible seven-year jail sentence.
Crippled by judicial proceedings, the Turan news agency meanwhile announced that it will suspend all activities from 1 September onwards. RSF urges the international community to demand Aliyev’s release and to oppose the imminent death of the last independent media outlet still active in Azerbaijan.
24 August 2017 - Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns Turan news agency director Mehman Aliyev’s arrest on trumped-up tax evasion charges in Baku today, in a sudden escalation in the regime’s persecution of the last independent media outlet still operating in Azerbaijan.
After being summoned and interrogated at the ministry of taxes as part of the criminal investigation into Turan’s taxes launched earlier this month, Aliyev was charged with “tax evasion” and “abuse of authority” and was taken to a police station in the Baku district of Yasamal.
A court must decide within 48 hours whether he will be placed in pre-trial detention or released.
“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.”
In the criminal investigation initiated on 7 August, Turan is accused of concealing its profits for several years. The proceedings have been marked by many irregularities, and RSF had already condemned them as clearly designed to put pressure on the news agency.
Turan’s offices were searched on 16 August and its bank accounts were frozen.
One of the leaders of the fight for reliable and independent news coverage in Azerbaijan, Aliyev was part of a group of journalists who founded Turan in May 1990 in preference to going to work for state-owned media.
Producing professionally-reported dispatches on the most sensitive subjects in three languages, Azerbaijani, Russian and English, Turan has become an essential news source in a country whose president, Ilham Aliyev, is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators. The agency was nominated for the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2014.
The Azerbaijani authorities have gone all out to eliminate media pluralism in recent years. As a result of being throttled financially, the daily newspaper Zerkalo was forced to stop publishing in May 2014, while Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Baku bureau was forcibly closed at the end of 2014.
The last opposition newspaper, Azadlig, was forced to stop producing a print edition in September 2016. Its senior staff have had to flee the country and its financial director, Faiq Amirov, was sentenced last month to three and a half years in prison on trumped-up charges. The leading independent news websites are all blocked.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.