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Azeri Journalist Accused of 'Hooliganism'

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FILE - Avaz Zeynalli, center, owner and chief editor of the independent news outlet Xural TV, is seen in this undated photo.

Two journalists in Azerbaijan are separately fighting accusations that they believe are unwarranted.

Jamil Mammadli, a freelance journalist who works in Khachmaz district, was detained briefly Wednesday on "hooliganism" charges, while in the capital, Baku, chief editor of the independent news outlet Xural TV, Avaz Zeynalli, is experiencing health issues while in pre-trial detention.

In Mammadli's case, he says he was detained as a suspect but that police "decided to release [me], while the investigation is pending." As a condition of that release, the journalist has been ordered to remain in his home province.

The investigation centers on a physical altercation between Mammadli and another man following a car accident on Dec. 15, 2022.

Mammadli said a driver hit the vehicle that he was a passenger in, and that police who were in the area filmed an argument that followed.

"I told the person hitting my car to leave. It is seen in the video that he attacked first, he hit us. But they accuse me of intentionally fighting with them, preventing them from leaving, beating them without any motive and then sending [them] away," Mammadli said.

While Mammadli acknowledges the disagreement took place, he says he believes the video is being used as an excuse to bring charges against him in retaliation for critical reporting.

The journalist, who used to be a regional correspondent for VOA's sister network Radio Liberty, says numerous accusations have been leveled against him since March 2022.

At that time, he was sentenced to a year and a half corrective labor — during which time the state withholds a percentage of his salary — after the head of the Guba region, Ziyaddin Aliyev, accused him of slander.

Those charges were related to videos the journalist broadcast on his YouTube channel about the Guba executive branch.

Police have confirmed to VOA they are investigating the journalist on charges of "hooliganism."

If convicted, he could be jailed for three years.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs denied that the case against Mammadli is politically motivated.

“There is enough complaint and an expert opinion for launching a criminal case," a spokesperson for the ministry's press service told VOA. "Currently, investigative actions are being carried out. As a result of the investigation, it will be proven whether he is guilty or not."

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says that journalists in Azerbaijan risk prison on "absurd pretenses" if they resist pressure. Additionally, media laws are considered increasingly repressive, the watchdog says.

Avaz Zeynalli

In Zeynalli's case, the Xural TV owner has been held in pre-trial detention since his arrest in September on bribery charges. A Baku court on January 5 extended the journalist's pretrial detention for four months.

Many rights activists say the case is an example of authorities using entrapment.

The journalist's wife, Melahet Gusuri, says that Zeynalli is in need of urgent medical care related to his diabetes.

Gusuri said that she appealed to the head of the State Security Service, as well as the prosecutor general and the ombudsman.

In her letter to authorities, Gusuri wrote, "The unjustified tensions that he is experiencing is a serious threat to his health. Even a one-day delay will cause serious complications. I request that you use your power to take the necessary steps to have Avaz Zeynalli undergo an urgent medical examination."

Gusuri is not permitted to visit or speak with her husband. A court order on his detention blocks family contact, she said.

"Our appeal to remove the ban was not approved. We have repeatedly submitted petitions and they have not been granted," she said.

VOA's calls to the State Security public relations department went unanswered.

A spokesperson for the Azerbaijan Ombudsman's Office told VOA that the office met with Zeynalli's wife on Tuesday and that her appeal request has been processed.

The spokesperson added that on the same day, the ombudsman's National Preventive Group met with Zeynalli in the detention center, and that the journalist's lawyer and family were informed of the meeting.

Zeynalli, whose media outlet broadcasts on YouTube, covers human rights abuses and corruption investigations and is often critical of the government.

He is accused of extorting money from a businessman who has been jailed, in return for favorable coverage.

Zeynalli has denied the charge and in court said he believes he was arrested on a political order. According to him, the accusations are fabricated in order to punish him for his journalistic activities and criticism of the government.

His wife believes the extension of his pre-trial detention is the result of unnecessary delays in the case, including the timing of a forensic examination of evidence.

"For four months, there was no investigation, and no evidence and/or facts were revealed. It seems that by scheduling this forensic examination, they created the basis for extending his pre-trial detention for another three months," she said.

Her husband's renewed pre-trial detention period is in place until April.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from the press services of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ombudsman's Office, which came after publication.

This story originated in VOA's Azeri Service.

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