US blasts Azerbaijan clampdown on Radio Free Europe

The US State Department on Monday lambasted Azerbaijan over its crackdown on the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, calling the arrests of journalists an attack on civil society.

About a dozen Radio Free Europe journalists in the Caucasus nation were arrested and interrogated over the weekend.

"We are alarmed by the government of Azerbaijan`s crackdown on civil society," said Jeffrey Rathke, a State Department spokesman, noting that those arrested had been denied legal counsel during their interrogations.

He added that US Secretary of State John Kerry had raised his concerns during a December 21 call with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. 

"Since then, we have seen the closure of (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty`s) offices, the seizure of its property, and RFERL employees forcibly taken from their homes for questioning by local law enforcement on unspecified charges," Rathke said.

The radio station said all the journalists were eventually released without charge, but had been questioned for up to 12 hours.

Eight other current and former radio station employees were told to report for questioning or face detention.

This month, Ramiz Mehdiyev, who heads the Aliyev administration, accused journalists of treason and of working for foreign security services.

Azerbaijani prosecutors have in recent months staged raids on other foreign-funded groups, including the Baku offices of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which was eventually shut down.

Rights groups routinely accuse the Aliyev administration of attacking freedom of expression and imprisoning opposition figures in the hydrocarbon-rich nation on the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan comes 160th out of 180 in a global press freedom ranking compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Headquartered in Prague, RFE/RL is financed by the US Congress and broadcasts in 21 countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

The network is rooted in a Cold War program started by the United States to counter Soviet propaganda.