BAKU (AFP) - Police in Azerbaijan have detained a dozen journalists working for US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty amid an ongoing crackdown on the outlet that Washington and rights groups decry.
The Baku offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were sealed on Friday after prosecutors and armed police confiscated equipment and computers during a raid.
The US State Department said it was "deeply disturbed" by the action, and called on Azerbaijan to respect its "international commitment to protecting media freedom." Ramping up pressure on the organisation's Azerbaijan station, Radio Azadliq, police descended upon the homes of its journalists Saturday and took many in for interrogation.
"Police have forcibly taken away around 12 of our journalists to undergo questioning in the prosecutor's office," the station's director, Kenan Aliyev, told AFP from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's headquarters in Prague.
"One of them has been forcibly dragged out from his home in front of his children wearing just his pyjamas," he said on Sunday.
He added the heavy crimes unit of the prosecutor's office was handling the case, noting even the bureau's cleaner had been summoned for questioning.
Aliyev said the forcible seizure was unnecessary, and apparently aimed at intimidating his journalists.
"What's happening is part of the Azerbaijani authorities' ongoing raid of the free press." A lawyer for the radio station has been stripped of his right to defend the journalists, and must now submit to questioning as a witness himself, said Aliyev.
"Nearly all of the journalists have been questioned without a lawyer present." Citing prosecutors, Aliyev said that the clampdown on the station was linked to a probe into the work of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in the energy-rich country.
"Radio Liberty is the last island of freedom in Azerbaijan," he said.
Rights groups say Azerbaijani authorities have been clamping down on opponents since the election of President Ilham Aliyev to a third term last year.
Aliyev, 53, came to power in 2003 amid controversial balloting following the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and Communist-era leader who ruled newly independent Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.
In recent months, Azerbaijani prosecutors have staged similar raids on other foreign-funded groups, including the Baku offices of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which was eventually shut down.
Around 15 journalists and bloggers are currently behind bars in the country, according to Radio Azadliq.
Among them is a top investigative reporter working for Radio Azadliq, Khadija Ismayilova, who was arrested in early December and placed in pre-trial detention for two months.
Prominent Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus is also in pre-trial detention on treason charges.
Yunus, a fierce critic of the oil-rich country's poor rights record, and her husband Arif were arrested this past summer and accused of spying for arch-enemy Armenia.
The legal assault on Radio Azadliq has sparked widespread concern.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said the government was "methodically crushing each of the remaining independent news outlets one by one."
Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, on Sunday said the offensive against Radio Azadliq "once again raises concerns for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan." Jagland said the Council of Europe - of which Azerbaijan has been a member since 2001 - will "demand the motives and legal justification of this action from Azerbaijani authorities."
Radio Azadliq provides Azerbaijani-language programming in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network directed at Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The radio network has its roots in a Cold War programme started by the US to counter Soviet propaganda.