Torture in Azerbaijan: How European funds flow to Baku’s prisons

The boarding gate was only a few meters away. Sevinc Vaqifqizi, 34, knew that these were probably her last moments of freedom. At Istanbul Airport on November 20, 2023, the Azerbaijani journalist, who worked for the online investigative outlet Abzas Media, recorded a final video testimony for social media, explaining the reasons for her hasty departure to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. This is where Ulvi Hasanli, the 36-year-old director of Abzas Media, had been arrested just hours earlier. “We would like to inform you that the order for Ulvi’s arrest comes directly from [Azerbaijani] President Ilham Aliyev,” she said in the video.

Journalist Sevinc Vaqifqizi at Istanbul airport on November 20, 2023, as she prepared to return to Baku, where Ulvi Hasanli, director of Abzas Media, had already been arrested.

That morning, Hasanli saw a police unit arrive at his home to search his apartment before taking him to the Abzas Media offices. According to law enforcement, €40,000 in cash was seized at the newspaper’s headquarters in central Baku.

Before his arrest, Hasanli briefly confided in reporters that he believed the money was planted by officials as supposed evidence to charge him with smuggling foreign currency. This is a common practice in former Soviet bloc countries, often used by ruling regimes to discredit organizations in the eyes of the public.

Officially accused of “trafficking in foreign currency,” Hasanli was allegedly beaten and assaulted upon his arrest, according to what Vaqifqizi recounted. “Why do you cover corruption instead of our victory in Nagorno-Karabakh? Don’t you have better stories to tell,” authorities allegedly asked Hasanli, referring to the disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In the video, Vaqifqizi justified her decision to go back to her country: “I can’t just leave Ulvi inside and lead a comfortable life.” Unsurprisingly, Vaqifqizi was arrested as soon as she stepped off the plane on the tarmac of Heydar-Aliyev International Airport, named after the father of the current president, who headed the former Soviet republic until 2003.

Journalists persecuted or imprisoned

Like Hasanli and Vaqifqizi, four other journalists or regular contributors to Abzas Media – Mahammad Kekalov, Nargiz Absalamova, Elnara Gasimova and Hafiz Babali – have also been detained in recent weeks. In the wake of this mounting and unprecedented media crackdown, President Aliyev ordered a snap presidential election for February 7, eight months earlier than originally scheduled.

Azerbaijan, a Caucasus country overlooking the Caspian Sea, ranks 151 of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ Media Freedom Index. In a country ubiquitous with persecuted journalists and political prisoners, Abzas Media is among the rare few tackling the corruption of high-ranking officials and the hidden assets of Aliyev’s entourage. Their latest investigations, which are still online, tackle a minister and his lucrative business and reveal corruption circuits in Nagorno Karabakh and the hidden assets of President Aliyev’s family. These are sensitive subjects for an authoritarian regime and earned Hasanli a spot on the extensive list of journalists targeted by the Pegasus spyware, as revealed by Forbidden Stories and its partners in July 2021.

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