Police in Baku have ransacked an apartment and seized equipment belonging to an RFE/RL free-lancer in the latest incident in an unrelenting campaign targeting the country's independent press.
Islam Shikhali, a free-lance video journalist working for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, was not at home during the September 26 raid, when police confiscated his computer, video camera, microphone, and mobile phone. His passport and other personal documents were also taken, but later returned.
"The police took Shikhali’s professional equipment, the tools of his trade, leaving us with the impression that they are attacking him for his journalism," said Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL editor in chief. "They have no right to seize this equipment. It should be returned immediately, Shikhali should be allowed to work, and this harassment should end," he said.
Shikhali was questioned at the prosecutor's office on September 28 and released. He told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that investigators asked about RFE/RL's work in Azerbaijan, and some of his Facebook friends who are independent journalists.
"They asked me how well I know these people, how often do they come to my apartment and so on," Shikhali said. "And why I live alone instead of living with my family and how was I getting by."
During the search, police showed Shikhali's roommate, who was in the apartment, a warrant citing suspicion of tax evasion. Tax evasion charges were used against investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, who was sentenced on September 1 to more than seven years in prison. Identical charges have been brought against other independent journalists, civic activists, and human rights defenders who are currently in jail, and who are regarded as "political prisoners" by a growing number of U.S. legislators, European officials, and international rights groups.
RFE/RL’s Baku bureau was raided by Azerbaijani state agents on December 26. The bureau's documents, corporate stamps, and equipment were confiscated, more than 20 bureau employees were interrogated, and its bank accounts were frozen. Several journalists have fled the country and those that remain fear imprisonment.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service continues to gather and report the news from RFE/RL’s headquarters in Prague for its website, www.azadliq.org, and remains a vital alternative to Azerbaijan’s government-controlled press.