Azerbaijan arrests journalist, charges another as press crackdown continues

BAKU (Reuters) – Azerbaijani police on Monday arrested one journalist and ordered pre-trial detention for another, the latest reporters to face legal trouble since a crackdown on the country’s independent media that began in November.

The organisation Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranks Azerbaijan 151st of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

Shahin Rzayev, a political observer with JAM News, an outlet that covers Azerbaijan and its neighbours Georgia and Armenia, was arrested and ordered to be held for 15 days on charges of “petty hooliganism,” Azerbaijan’s interior ministry said.

Separately, a Baku court ordered Elnara Gasimova, a reporter with the Abzas Media investigative news site, to be held in pre-trial detention until April 3 on charges of smuggling.

She is the sixth Abzas Media reporter to be charged under anti-smuggling laws since November. At the time, police said they had found 40,000 euros ($44,000) in cash in the outlet’s Baku offices.

Also in November, Azerbaijani police arrested Aziz Orujev, head of the Kanal 13 online video channel, and later charged him with smuggling.

International press freedom groups have demanded the release of the Abzas Media staff, describing the arrests as an attempt to silence their anti-corruption reporting.

Azerbaijan is holding early presidential elections next month, with incumbent Ilham Aliyev widely expected to win.

(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Felix Light in Tbilisi; Editing by Mark Porter)