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RFE/RL Demands Azerbaijan Reopen Baku Bureau

On December 26, 2014, Azerbaijani prosecutors sealed shut RFE/RL's Baku bureau after ordering staff to leave.
On December 26, 2014, Azerbaijani prosecutors sealed shut RFE/RL's Baku bureau after ordering staff to leave.

WASHINGTON – An Azerbaijani court will convene on August 3 to hear RFE/RL’s appeal against tax-related claims that were used by the government as grounds to shutter the company's Baku bureau in December 2014.

“The commercial court should affirm that all claims brought against us are baseless, and the prosecutor should move without delay to unfreeze our Baku bureau’s bank accounts, return the company seal, stamp and documents that were confiscated in December 2014, unfreeze the personal bank accounts of our Baku staff members, and let us get on with our journalistic mission of providing independent news and information to the people of Azerbaijan,” said RFE/RL President Thomas Kent.

Earlier this year Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court effectively threw out two claims against RFE/RL’s Baku bureau when it overturned two charges against RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova, leading to her release from prison in May. Of two remaining allegations against RFE/RL, one involves the Azerbaijani government’s interpretation of a bilateral tax treaty that exempts U.S. nonprofit organizations from corporate income tax. The other relates to the process of accrediting journalists, which the Azerbaijani government revised effective July 1 this year, and with which RFE/RL is in compliance.

RFE/RL was forced to close its Baku bureau in May 2015, after it was raided by Azerbaijani authorities on December 26, 2014. Agents with the prosecutor’s office confiscated company property, interrogated over 20 staff members without legal representation, imposed travel bans on employees, and froze company and personal bank accounts pursuant to a tax inspection on unspecified grounds.

The raid came just weeks after the top advisor to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev published a statement in the country's official media calling RFE/RL journalists spies and threats to the country’s national security.

Despite the closure, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service has continued to actively engage audiences in Azerbaijan via satellite and the Internet, attracting nearly 1.5 million visits per month to its website, and more than 20 million views on YouTube during the first six months of 2016.