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Tax officials and prosecutors swoop in on a publisher of independent and opposition newspapers. From IWPR.by Afgan Mukhtarli 27 March 2014
Free speech advocates in Azerbaijan have been rallying to the cause of the country’s largest publishing house, which they believe has been hammered by the tax authorities for acting as a channel for alternative points of view.
A youth organization called Dalga staged a demonstration in the capital, Baku, in support of privately owned publishing house Qanun on 14 March, but police soon dispersed the several dozen people who attended.
At the beginning of March, the Tax Ministry ordered Qanun to pay a fine of 150,000 manats ($190,000), leaving it close to bankruptcy.
The ministry’s press office told IWPR that investigators had found two separate cases of tax evasion – one involving the publishing house itself, which owed 74,000 manats, and the other a magazine also called Qanun (Law), which owed 30,000 manats.
The company’s owner, Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, told IWPR this was not the first time officials had gone after his business, for reasons he said had nothing to do with tax receipts.
“My staff prints mainly independent and opposition newspapers. That’s the reason for this pressure,” he said.
Noting that he spent six months in jail in 2003, he said, “I think it’s now likely that I’ll be arrested again.”
Khuduoghlu recalled how the latest trouble began when 20 tax officers arrived at his publishing house out of the blue in November.
“They took control of the building for several hours. All our documents were taken by force. They treated our employees like terrorists,” he said. “By law, tax inspectors can only take copies of documents, and then only with the permission of the owners. But they took the originals, despite my objections.”
Khuduoghlu went to court to fight the Tax Ministry’s actions, but his submission for a hearing was rejected seven times.
“Instead of examining our complaint, the ministry sent our case to the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal case. Our accounts are now frozen and we can’t pay our employees their salaries,” he said. “They call in our employees, editors, and translators to give evidence, and question them for six or seven hours at a stretch.”
Nigar Khocharli, owner of the Ali and Nino bookshop chain and a business partner of the Qanun firm, is among those who have been summoned for questioning.
“This isn’t about fighting tax evasion. It’s about destroying publishers,” she told IWPR. “Ali and Nino will presumably be their next target. I run a clean, honest business. Our chain of shops functions transparently, and I don’t pay bribes to anyone. … The state is pressuring us.”
The Dalga group's leader, Haji Zeynalli, said readers as well as the publisher face an uncertain future.
“The closure of Qanun would result in a book crisis because, as things stand, it is the only publishing house that meets the demand for literature,” he said.
Rashid Hajili, head of the Media Rights Institute, agreed that officials were trying to strangle the business.
“Tax inspections are ordered for political reasons,” he said. “By launching a criminal case, they admit of no appeal and do not confine themselves to any one area. The main aim is to take control of a publishing house that can produce books, newspapers, and pamphlets – anything the government doesn’t like.”
Well-known author Seymur Bayjan sees the legal action against Qanun as a way for officials to corner a lucrative area of the market.
“This is happening all over Azerbaijan. Someone sets up a business and starts earning a bit of money. This attracts the attention of the bureaucrat-cum-oligarchs, and the owner loses his business,” he told IWPR.
This is not the first time that Azerbaijan’s tax authorities have been accused of using their powers to further the government’s political aims. In 2012, Avaz Zeynali, editor in chief of the independent-minded newspaper Khural, was convicted of tax evasion and jailed for nine years.