WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Azerbaijani authorities raided and closed the bureau of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on Friday in an apparent attempt to silence one of the country’s last independent media outlets, the station said.
A senior official of the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disturbed” by reports that employees of the RFE/RL bureau in Baku were detained in their offices and questioned while the premises were searched by police.
“We call on the responsible authorities to respect Azerbaijan’s international commitment to protecting media freedom,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
RFL/RL, which made its name broadcasting into Russia and its communist allies during the Cold War and is funded by the U.S. Congress, said investigators and armed police had ordered employees into a room of the bureau while they ransacked a company safe and confiscated documents and official stamps.
A court order had stated that the search was part of an investigation of the station’s Azerbaijani Service in connection with Azeri laws on foreign funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), RFL/RL said in a statement.
Nenad Pejic, editor-in-chief and co-CEO of RFE/RL, called the raid a “flagrant violation of every international commitment and standard Azerbaijan has pledged to uphold.”
“The order comes from the top as retaliation for our reporting and as a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL.”
Pejic vowed RFE/RL would “continue our work to support Azeris’ basic right of free access to information and to report the news to audiences that need it.”
Rights advocates accuse veteran Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies. The West has courted the former Soviet republic as an alternative to Russia as a supplier of oil and gas.
Kenan Aliyev, director of REF/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, said the raid was part of a campaign against independent media and NGOs that had included the arrest of Khadija Ismayilova, the host of a RFE/RL show.
Ismayilova, who has investigated government corruption, business dealings of the president’s family, and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, was detained this month on charges of inciting a person to attempt suicide after a former colleague at the radio station attempted to kill himself.
She has dismissed the accusations against her as “dirty and black” tactics. A social media campaign has been staged calling for her release.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by David Storey and Ken Wills