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Azerbaijan Detains a Journalist and His Lawyer

FILE - Azerbaijan Journalist Avaz Zeynalli, December 2017.

The arrest in Azerbaijan of a journalist and his lawyer is being viewed by human rights defenders and members of the country's media as politically motivated.

Officers from the prosecutor general's office in the capital Baku on Saturday detained Avaz Zeynalli, owner and chief editor of the independent news outlet Xural TV, and Elchin Sadigov, a prominent human rights lawyer.

In the early hours of the next day, a district court ordered both to be held in pretrial detention for four months on charges related to bribery.

Zeynalli, whose media outlet broadcasts on YouTube, covers human rights abuses and corruption investigations and is often critical of the government. Sadigov is a Baku-based lawyer who regularly defends journalists and human rights defenders.

An investigation into the pair was started after a pro-government news outlet on September 7 published claims that they had extorted money from a jailed businessman in return for favorable coverage, according to a statement by the prosecutor general's office.

In court, Zeynalli and Sadigov rejected the accusations.

Local and international media associations and journalists expressed concern over the arrests.

Mehman Aliyev, editor of the independent Turan news agency, told VOA he believes the arrests contradict the government's stated commitment to freedom of speech.

"The reason behind Avaz Zeynalli's detention is to prevent his journalistic activities," Aliyev said. "His activities go against the policy of the Azerbaijani authorities, its policy in the field of media and freedom of speech."

The Azerbaijan Press Council, a self-regulatory body that oversees media compliance, expressed concern over the arrest of Zeynalli.

The council "is always worried about journalists' arrests, regardless of the charges brought against them. We would like Avaz to be freed," council chair Aflatun Amashov, told VOA.

The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called for the pair's immediate release.

The arrest "illustrates once again the hostile environment which civil society activists and independent media professionals face in Azerbaijan," CPJ said in a statement.

Rufat Safarov, a former prosecutor who heads the Azerbaijan-based human rights group Defense Line, said the arrests added to a deteriorating human rights situation in the country.

"Unfortunately, the already unpleasant legal image of the country will become even more unpleasant, to put it mildly," he said.

The legal expert does not believe Zeynalli and Sadigov can be tried for corruption, which under Azeri law relates only to "an official performing actions in exchange for certain material favors, money."

"It is impossible to be the subject of corruption and bribery without being a government official or a government representative. Therefore, I believe that the current criminal prosecution took place under the directive of political authorities," Safarov told VOA.

The General Prosecutor's Office rejected claims that the arrests are politically motivated.

During the investigation, the statement said, "reasonable suspicions were established that the official received a large amount of bribe, and thus a criminal case was initiated, and an investigation is being conducted."

Bahruz Maharramov, a member of the Azerbaijan parliament, also rejected claims that the detention is political.

Information from the inquiry and published in the media "established reasonable suspicions that the officials received a large amount of bribe," he told VOA.

"Everyone should understand, once and for all, that the Azerbaijani authorities do not have any problems with Avaz Zeynalli or Elchin Sadigov. And in general, lawyers and journalists, like everyone else in Azerbaijan today, are equal before the law, regardless of their beliefs, affiliation to political parties and other public associations," he said.

On the day that Zeynalli and Sadigov were detained, officers from the prosecutor's office searched their homes and offices.

Sadigov's wife, Zibeyda, who is also a lawyer, said that officers took case materials relating to clients represented by her and her husband.

Azerbaijani lawyer Alasgar Mammadli said the removal of such material contradicts the law on the provision of legal services.

"Lawyers’ documents related to their professional activity cannot be requested or taken by the authorities under any circumstances. However, we saw that piles of documents were collected in a bag from his office and taken away."

"This is directly related to the lawyer's activities. It is a violation of the article guaranteeing activities of a lawyer," Mammadli said.

The chair of the Bar Association of Azerbaijan, Anar Baghirov, told VOA the group is closely following the case.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to clarify which authorities detained the journalist and his lawyer.

This story originated in VOA's Azerbaijani Service.