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Azerbaijani court puts TV staff in pre-trial detention

BAKU (Reuters) -The founder of an independent Azerbaijani TV station and four of his journalists were placed in pre-trial detention for four months on Friday on suspicion of smuggling, their lawyer said.

The case against Toplum TV founder Akif Gurbanov and his staff is the latest in a series of prosecutions that have prompted Western concern about press freedom in the South Caucasus country.

A lawyer for Gurbanov told Reuters outside the courthouse in Baku that authorities found $30,000 in cash during a search this week at the offices of a civic society organisation of which Gurbanov is board chairman.

Gurbanov said the money had nothing to do with him, denies the charges against him as politically motivated and intends to appeal, said the lawyer, Shakhla Gumbatova.

On Friday, two more of his associates were arrested, including a co-founder of Toplum TV and a member of Platform III Republic, the civic society organisation. And two additional Toplum TV journalists were placed under house arrest by a court.

The U.S. State Department said it was deeply troubled by the news of the initial arrests in a raid of Toplum TV's offices on Wednesday, and called on Azerbaijan to end the harassment of those exercising their fundamental freedoms.

Azerbaijan has detained a string of independent reporters since late last year. Several are now facing trial on charges unrelated to journalistic activity, such as smuggling.

The authorities say the journalists have real cases to answer. In January, the foreign ministry accused the European Union's ambassador of interference in the judicial system after he said he was "appalled" by reports of the way journalists were being treated.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in February with more than 92% of the vote, in an election criticised by Western observers as neither free nor fair.

Aliyev, who succeeded his father as president in 2003, has enjoyed a surge of popularity since September, when his army recaptured the region of Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic Armenians who had run it as a breakaway statelet for three decades.

(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Lucy Papachristou in London; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Diane Craft)