BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A U.S. federal agency on Friday strongly condemned the raid and closure of the offices of a U.S.-funded radio station in Azerbaijan's capital by prosecutors and police as part of crackdown on independent media in the ex-Soviet Caspian Sea nation.
Jeff Shell, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency supervising U.S. government-supported media, denounced the raid of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offices in Baku as "an escalation of the Azeri government's abusive attempt to intimidate independent journalists and repress free media."
The BBG said in a statement that investigators from Azerbaijan's state prosecutor's office entered the RFE/RL bureau on Friday morning, accompanied by armed police officers. They searched the company safe, ransacked files and equipment, and ordered staff members to leave the building after holding them in a room for several hours without telephone or computer access. Several staff members later were summoned for questioning.
The Prosecutor General's Office told The Associated Press that the search was conducted to investigate a "grave crime" but would not elaborate. Two RFE journalists couldn't be immediately contacted by the AP.
The station's top reporter, Khadija Ismayilova, was jailed earlier this month pending a trial on charges of driving a man to suicide, which critics dismissed as an attempt to gag an influential journalist.
Ismayilova has remained in custody pending her trial, and could face a sentence of up to seven years in prison if convicted. Amnesty International has declared Ismayilova a prisoner of conscience, "detained solely for exercising her right to freedom of expression."
"We call on the authorities to immediately allow RFE/RL to resume its important journalistic work from Baku, and to release investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova," Shell was quoted as saying in the BBG statement.
It also quoted Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL's editor in chief and co-CEO, as saying that the raid was "a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL."
Rights groups have continuously criticized the government of President Ilkham Aliev for cracking down on independent media and opposition activists.