Last Independent Azeri News Agency to End Work as Chief Held

(Bloomberg) -- Azerbaijan’s Turan agency, the country’s only remaining independent news service, said it’s suspending operations from Sept. 1 after its director was detained on tax evasion charges and its bank accounts frozen.

Mehman Aliyev was held by police late Thursday after tax officials summoned him for questioning, defense lawyer Fuad Agayev said by phone. Baku’s Yasamal district court on Friday ordered him to remain in custody for three months pending trial on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of office, Agayev said. 

The detention of Aliyev, who isn’t related to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, marks a “sudden escalation” in the state’s “persecution of the last independent media outlet still operating” in Azerbaijan, the Reporters Without Borders organization, known as RSF, said in a statement. Azeri authorities raided Turan’s Baku offices on August 16, seizing financial documents and freezing its bank accounts.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan denies accusations from rights groups that it’s clamping down on media critical of President Aliyev, whose family has ruled the Caspian Sea nation for more than two decades. He succeeded his father Heydar Aliyev in 2003 and named his wife Mehriban as the country’s first vice president in February after pushing through sweeping constitutional changes that extended the presidential term. Azerbaijan ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

A court in Baku ordered the websites of U.S.-funded RFE/RL’s Azeri service blocked in May as well as those of four opposition media. Journalist Mehman Huseynov, who reported on alleged official corruption, was jailed for two years in March after being convicted of defaming police. The U.S. demanded a “full” investigation after blogger Mehman Qalandarov died in police custody in April.

“The authorities are stepping up the pressure on Turan because they have been unable to force it to cooperate,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s eastern Europe and central Asia desk.