FILE - An Azerbaijani policeman, left, guards as journalists gather at the Radio Free Europe headquarters in Baku, Dec. 26, 2014.
FILE - An Azerbaijani policeman, left, guards as journalists gather at the Radio Free Europe headquarters in Baku, Dec. 26, 2014.

Despite continued harassment and threats from Azerbaijan officials, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists in Baku continue to work, the broadcaster's Azerbaijani service chief says.

Kenan Aliyev told VOA's Azerbaijani service that the U.S.-government-funded broadcaster faces great challenges in Baku.

Azerbaijani police raided the RFE/RL bureau December 26, shutting down the office and detaining staff members for interrogation. Aliyev said that what has happened to RFE/RL radio is completely contrary to Azerbaijan's law.

Azerbaijan authorities have not made any statement about the case.

“Our lawyers demand explanation of the reasons for the actions of the Azerbaijani government," Aliyev said. "The officials have refused to present any evidence or documentation whatsoever to us for the reasons behind their actions.”

Tough situation

The employees have been interrogated without having a lawyer present, as required by Azerbaijani law. When the RFE/RL lawyer arrived at the prosecutor’s office, he was told he was no longer a lawyer in the case, but a witness. That effectively meant all employees were left without legal defense, Aliyev said.

He said some of the journalists had been abruptly taken from home to be questioned while wearing their pajamas and without being given a chance to put on shoes. Others have been threatened.

Despite the tough conditions, the RFE/RL journalists in Baku are continuing to work from home as freelancers, Aliyev said. The broadcast in Azeri continues from RFE's headquarters in Prague.
The U.S. State Department called on Azerbaijan to "uphold human rights and basic freedoms, including freedom of the press," after the police raid in Baku.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on December 21, raising concerns about "Azerbaijan's crackdown on civil society."  A State Department spokesman said U.S. officials discussed the actions against RFE/RL with senior Azerbaijan officials.

Media freedoms violated

The Broadcasting Board of Governors — which oversees RFE/RL, Voice of America and other U.S. government-supported civilian international media — called on Azerbaijani authorities to end the investigation of RFE/RL journalists in Baku and allow the bureau to reopen immediately.

BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell said the harsh treatment of RFE/RL journalists "violates every principle of media freedom."

Shell also called on Azerbaijani officials to release RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova. She was arrested December 5 and ordered detained for two months pending trial on accusations she tried to pressure a man to commit suicide. Ismayilova has reported on government corruption in Azerbaijan, which drew reprisals that included an online posting of a video of her having sex with her boyfriend.  

An Azerbaijan official has publicly accused her of treason but has given no basis for that accusation.

VOA's Azerbaijani service contributed to this report.