Azerbaijan is continuing its investigation into the finances of the country’s last-standing independent newswire, Turan, despite hopes that an international outcry would help compel the nation’s free-media-wary authorities to back down. The agency estimates that it may be able to continue to operate only for another month or two.
“Our situation is ambiguous,” the newswire’s editor, Shain Gajiyev, told Tamada Tales. “We still face a criminal case on tax evasion . . .We have a problem with our bank accounts. While they have not been closed, we currently can’t use the deposits made to our accounts. So, we can’t pay salaries to our staff.”
Tax officials claim Turan and its director, Mehman Aliyev, robbed the state of up to 27,000 manats (about $16,000) in unpaid taxes. The agency faces a potential penalty of 10,000 manats (about $6,000) in connection with the charges.
International media-freedom watchdogs, though, dismiss the charges as a classic excuse for the Azerbaijani government to muffle another critical media voice. Baku rejects such claims.
Yet among Azerbaijani media, Turan is largely regarded as the last of the Mohicans; the single remaining national news outlet in the former Soviet republic that is not controlled or influenced by the government and consistently criticizes the long-serving President Ilham Aliyev and his all-powerful family. Azerbaijan’s prisons remain packed with individuals who have ventured to take public issue with the government, international human-rights groups say.
Mehman Aliyev, who shares a last name with his country’s strongman president but is considered his complete antithesis, was arrested in August, touching off fears that it was Turan’s turn to be closed, co-opted or dragooned into toeing the government line. The charges against him were familiar picks for government critics – aside from tax evasion, illegal business activity and overstepping his official authority.
Early in September, the US Senate Appropriations Committee included language in its 2018 foreign appropriations bill that would prevent Azerbaijani officials involved in Aliyev’s detention from traveling to the US. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a full Senate vote.
Shortly after the Committee’s decision, Aliyev was suddenly released from pre-trial detention, prompting a brief spell of optimism.
The US State Department welcomed Aliyev’s release and urged Baku to drop the charges against him. “We further call on the authorities to build on this positive step by taking action to strengthen freedom of expression and other human rights in Azerbaijan,” it said in a statement.
But any optimism was short-lived. Defying Turan’s expectations, Baku refused to drop the charges against its director and officially notified the agency on October 2 that the tax-evasion probe against it would continue.
Turan has appealed the tax ministry’s claims in court. A hearing is scheduled for October 11. “At this stage, it is hard to predict what sort of decision will be taken,” Gajiyev said.
Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov has said that Turan is free to continue its work while the investigation continues, but that means little if the cash isn’t there to work.
Mehman Aliyev, like many others, suspects the government is trying to starve Turan of income.
“If the case gets drawn out, we can hold out, maximum, for one or two months,” Aliyev told Tamada Tales. He added that he himself is prepared to face the closure of the agency and his own imprisonment rather than see Turan lose its independence.
“Tax claims, court hearings . . . these are formalities. This is a political case.”