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Two more individuals arrested in move against Azerbaijan TV station

BAKU (Reuters) - Two more individuals linked to an independent Azerbaijani television station were arrested on Saturday and pleaded not guilty in court in connection with a probe into smuggling, one of their lawyers said.

The latest detentions brought to nine the total number facing charges connected to Toplum TV. Two have been placed under house arrest.

Arrested on Saturday in Baku were Alesker Mammadli, co-founder of the station, and Ruslan Izzetli, from the Platform III Republic civil society group.

"Alesker Mammadli and Ruslan Izzetli stated that they were not guilty," lawyer Agil Layij said outside the court. "They said they were being prosecuted for their criticism of the authorities and intend to appeal."

The case against Toplum TV founder Akif Gurbanov, one of those arrested earlier, 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 said on Friday that authorities found $30,000 in cash during a search this week at the offices of Platform III, of which Gurbanov is board chairman.

Gurbanov said the money had nothing to do with him and denied the charges against him as politically motivated. His lawyer said he intended to appeal.

Two of his associates were detained on Friday, including a co-founder of Toplum TV and a member of Platform III Republic. Two Toplum TV journalists were placed under house arrest.

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.

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

The authorities say the journalists have 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 treatment of journalists.

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

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, Editing by Ron Popeski and Chizu Nomiyama)