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COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Several months before journalist Mehman Aliyev was arrested in Azerbaijan this year, the government secretly proposed financing his Turan News Agency in exchange for control of the publication.

“For me, it was like a moral death,” Mehman, who is director of Turan, the last independent news outlet in Azerbaijan, told Capital News Service in an email.

Mehman refused the government’s offer, he said, knowing he would be punished for his decision.

A few days before his arrest in late August, “I was given the last chance to get out of the situation, but I preferred arrest,” he said. “I was ready to spend time in prison and took it as the victorious finale of my struggle for democracy, and life in general.”

On Aug. 16, the government froze Turan’s bank account and raided its offices, effectively shutting it down.

Eight days later, Mehman, 60, was arrested and charged with tax evasion and illegal business activity. His imprisonment sparked an immediate international outcry because he had been such an admired figure in the global journalistic community.

His colleagues describe Mehman as a mentor cherished by many Azerbaijanis who regularly sought out his work after other independent papers were shuttered or banned.

“He was our teammate,” said Alex Raufoglu, the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Turan. “That’s why when he got arrested I thought, ‘Oh we both got arrested.'”

A global reputation

Mehman is well known for writing about corruption and human rights violations in Azerbaijan.

“His name matters. His opinion matters,” Tamara Grigoryeva, the Eurasia program officer at Freedom House, an independent human rights and watchdog organization, said in an interview with CNS. “When he comments on something, people actually read it.”

Mehman became a journalist when Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union. In May 1990, just a year before Azerbaijan declared its independence, Mehman and a group of journalists founded Turan on a shoestring.

In its early years, Mehman “sold lots of his belongings just to keep Turan alive,” said Raufoglu.

“He was such a humble person,” he said. “That was one of the reasons why I was always around him.”

Mehman’s arrest and the tax probe launched against Turan quickly turned into an “international scandal,” said Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani journalist in self-imposed exile after she was threatened on social media.

“Turan and Mehman in particular, he has a very strong reputation abroad,” she told CNS.

Restrictions on media freedom

When Richard Kauzlarich was the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in the 1990s, media was in a “kind of golden era,” he told CNS.

The media “knew where the red lines were and they didn’t go beyond them, but that said, there were independent newspapers, some associated with opposition political parties,” he said.

This changed dramatically after Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev left office in 2003 and his son Ilham took over without the same popular legitimacy as his father, according to Kauzlarich, who is now a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

Journalists in Azerbaijan have always faced restrictions on media freedom, said Jim Duck, a private-sector security analyst for Europe and Russia, and expert on Azerbaijan. But when Ilham Aliyev took office, his administration started to pass legislation that put increasingly harsh limitations on the media.

“He is less confident as a leader than his father was and saw the political opposition and the independent media as a threat,” said Kauzlarich.

Although the Azeri Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the right to access information, these laws are rarely enforced, according to a 2016 Freedom House report.

In 2014, Azerbaijan criminalized defamation on the internet. In 2016, the country made online defamation of the president a criminal offense punishable with prison time.

“I don’t think Ilham is under any illusions about what’s going on in his country versus what he says,” Kauzlarich said. “He’s right behind all of these arrests and directing his security and other services and everything they do. They wouldn’t be doing this without his approval.”

Kauzlarich and many other experts expect the media situation in Azerbaijan to get much worse before it gets better.

“The government has a list of independent media,” Grigoryeva said. “There is a time when they come after every single media, and now was the time for Turan.”

“Unprecedented” repression

Azerbaijan leads Europe and Central Asia in the number of jailed journalists, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists. Fourteen are currently in prison, according to Amnesty International.

“The level of repression nowadays is unprecedented,” said Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The government has just crushed the very last independent media operating in the country. All the most prominent independent journalists are jailed or forced to exile.”

The government also closed down the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in May and blocked Voice of America and Britain’s BBC from reporting from inside the country, although the outlets continue to report discreetly with the help of a number of citizen journalists, said Joanna Levison, the director of communications for RFE/RL.

“We have, I think, quite a substantial information network,” she said.

The government’s effort to control free speech intensified following the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, Bihr said.

Azerbaijan is located just east of Turkey, and borders Iran and Georgia.

“The authorities have just found a new pretext to crack down on critics,” Bihr said.

The Embassy of Azerbaijan did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The United States established diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan in 1992, a year after it became independent from the Soviet Union.

A major oil producer, crude oil is the single largest export to the United States, and U.S. companies are actively involved in offshore oil development projects, according to the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. government has also provided Azerbaijan and non-governmental organizations that operate in the country with financial assistance to promote democratic institutions, including a professional, independent media.

18 days in prison

In recognition of National Press Day on July 22 in Azerbaijan, President Aliyev awarded 255 journalists free apartments at a windy outdoor ceremony in Baku. Aliyev stood in front of the concrete apartment high-rise and snipped the red ribbon once on his left and once on his right, leaving a small length of ribbon, which he then proceeded to place on a silver platter an assistant held.

“Azerbaijani journalism develops and plays a very positive role in the society. Freedom of speech…is ensured in Azerbaijan,” he said to the crowd, his face expressionless.

Two weeks later, the taxation ministry launched an investigation into Turan, claiming it had failed to register financial grant contracts, which is a violation of Azeri law.

Nine days later, police raided Turan’s offices, confiscating documents and a computer, The Washington Post reported.

On Aug. 25, Mehman was arrested on charges of tax evasion, abuse of office and illegal business activity. He faced up to seven-year in prison. A court in Baku placed him in pre-trial detention for three months.

While his arrest wasn’t surprising, said Grigoryeva, the effect of the uproar in response was.

Poets and artists signed a letter of support and U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, tweeted about his arrest.

On Sept. 7, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, even proposed sanctions against the Azerbaijani officials involved in Mehman’s arrest. The next day, the Azeri government began to negotiate Mehman’s release, telling him that an error had occurred, he said.

Four days later, Mehman was released from prison and placed on house arrest. Three weeks after that, the government approved the decision to close the case against him and Turan, citing a “changing situation.”

“I expected international support, but I did not expect such a strong and principled pressure on the government, which led to my release,” said Mehman.

“I think it was a combination of events, but really it was the (threat of U.S.) sanctions that not just scared, but also made (the Azeri government) realize that it honestly was going to affect their people and they have to take a step forward,” said Geybullayeva.

Mehman recently presented the authorities with a proposal to bolster high-quality and responsible independent media.

“They rejected it,” he said.