Last week the Ministry of Taxes opened a criminal case against Turan Information Agency, an independent media outlet in Baku, alleging large-scale tax evasion. Turan’s director, Mehman Aliyev, categorically rejects the allegations and claims that the Ministry’s handling of the case violates Azerbaijan’s tax code regulations. Reporters Without Borders has condemned the Ministry’s actions as ‘persecution.’
In documents published by Turan last week, the Baku City Local Income Department (BCLID) claims that the agency owes over 37,000 manats (approximately $22,000) in back taxes for income which was allegedly concealed between 2014 and 2016. On 10 August, the Department for the Preliminary Investigation of Tax Crimes (DPITC) launched a criminal case against Turan based on BCLID’s allegations. Both BCLID and DPITC are departments of the Ministry of Taxes.
‘I was questioned on 9 August,’ Turan director Aliyev told Meydan TV. ‘I said great, there are accusations, but please present the evidence that the accusations are based on. Now they say there will be an on-site audit, they’ll investigate it. But I want to point out that the Local Income Department has no evidence regarding this case.’
Aliyev says that this lack of evidence reveals the charges to be politically motivated. ‘The main thing is that if there is a problem it should be investigated. It never should have gotten to this stage. They opened a criminal case without any evidence. This demonstrates that they’re biased against us….I can’t explain it otherwise.’
On 14 August, Turan published an open letter to the Minister of Taxes, Fazil Mammadov, listing the articles of Azerbaijan’s tax code which the Ministry has violated in its handling of the case. According the the code, an on-site tax audit must be conducted within 30 days of submission of the taxpayer’s declaration. In addition, if discrepancies or errors are found in a tax declaration the Ministry should request additional information or explanations from the taxpayer. Mammadov says that the Ministry never made such a request.
On 11 August, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement regarding the case. ‘RSF condemns the Azerbaijani government’s use of tax evasion allegations to harass the Baku-based Turan news agency, the last independent media outlet still operating within the country.’
‘These proceedings are designed to cripple a respected news agency financially,’ said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. ‘We call on the authorities to end this systematic harassment of the last independent media voices and to drop the investigation into Turan.’
This is not the first time that the Ministry of Taxes has used charges of tax evasion against independent media and activists. Azerbaijani human rights defender Intigam Aliyev, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, civil society leaders Anar Mammadli and Bashir Suleymanli have all served time in prison on charges of tax evasion. In 2016 Meydan TV was accused of tax evasion in a criminal investigation which is ongoing.
Founded in 1990, Turan was one of the first independent news agencies in the Soviet Union. Today it is one of the leading sources of news about Azerbaijan in Azerbaijani, English, and Russian.