Azerbaijan's government is continuing its spree of arresting local independent journalists.
The wave of detentions began last month as relations deteriorated between the U.S. and state-run and pro-government media signaled a hunt for "U.S. spies" in the country that coincided with arrests of independent journalists.
U.S.-Azerbaijani ties improved somewhat with the visit of a top State Department official last week and the anti-American campaign has died down in the media.
But the arrests continue unabated.
On December 13, Hafiz Babali, an investigative journalist and editor at the independent news agency Turan, was detained, and his house was searched by police. The following day he was placed in pretrial detention for three months. The Interior Ministry told Turan that Babali was arrested as part of the criminal case launched against the investigative outlet Abzas Media.
Babali had been interrogated previously as he collaborated on several investigations with Abzas. In late November, he was identified as a suspect in the foreign currency smuggling case against Abzas, and his bank accounts were frozen, he learned via his lawyer.
"What illegal act can the prosecution charge me with? I understand that we live in an environment, in a society under a government where any innocent person can be charged with even the most heinous of crimes and imprisoned by the puppet courts of this country. There are plenty of examples of this," Babali wrote on Facebook on December 5. "Have I cooperated with Abzas? Yes. I am a journalist. This is my job."
Abzas was the first target of the government's ongoing attack on independent media. One pro-government media outlet explicitly accused it of receiving funds from the U.S. government for propagating "radical feminism" in Azerbaijan.
Four people from Abzas - its director, deputy director, editor-in-chief, and a reporter - were put in pre-trial detention on charges of smuggling after police allegedly found 40,000 euros in cash in their Baku office. And several people who have worked with Abzas were interrogated.
Earlier this week, reporter and director of news outlet Kanal11, Teymur Karimov, was arrested and put in 4-month pre-trial detention . Karimov told his lawyer that he denies the charge of blackmail against him, and that he was tortured during his detainment.
Karimov was the third head of a media outlet to be arrested since the campaign, after Abzas' Ulvi Hasanli, and the chief of Kanal13, Aziz Orujov, who was put in 3-month pre-trial detention on charges of illegal construction. (Another journalist from Kanal13, Rufat Muradli, was placed under administrative detention for a month on charges of hooliganism and disobedience to police.)
Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s South Caucasus Researcher, commented on the continuing arrests on December 12:
"What's unfolding is worryingly reminiscent of the crackdowns on independent media, media freedom and civil society seen in 2012 and 2015, which decimated civil society in Azerbaijan, saw the closure of critical outlets and NGOs, and the persecution and arbitrary arrests of dozens of human rights defenders and activists," Nozadze said.