Top Azeri Journalist Targeted With "Spy" Charge
The authorities in Azerbaijan have charged leading journalist Khadija Ismayil under espionage legislation. The United States embassy has described as “absurd” claims that two American officials who met Ismayil were gathering intelligence.
Ismayil has spent years reporting on issues like high-level official corruption that the authorities in Azerbaijan would rather not have made public, and has been the target of smear campaigns before. (See Azeri Journalist Defies Blackmailers.)
The journalist was formally charged on February 18, after being summoned to the prosecutor general’s office for questioning over several days this week, ostensibly as a “witness”.
She was charged under Article 284 of Azerbaijan’s criminal court – “revealing a state secret” – after she published a document on her Facebook page on February 17 that revealed how the secret service tried to infiltrate and undermine the opposition.
In the document, dating from 2011, a National Security Ministry officer sets out terms for recruiting an agent to provide information from inside the political opposition and attempt to sow divisions within it.
Ismayil told IWPR she was given the document in 2011, at which time it had already appeared on someone else’s Facebook page. At the time she did nothing with it, as she was uncertain whether it was genuine, but she decided to make it public because it was the focus of prosecutors’ questioning this week.
At first the prosecution investigators asked her where she had got the document, but by the third day they were claiming that she had passed a “state secret” to foreign nationals.
Also this week, a parliamentarian from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Jeyhun Osmanli, gave prosecutors an audio recording he claimed to have recorded surreptitiously in a Baku restaurant, with Ismayil talking to “foreign nationals”.
Announcing his actions on Facebook, Osmanli declared that “betrayal of the Motherland will not be forgiven”. Interviewed about that comment later, he confirmed that he wrote it but was unable to clarify what might constitute “betrayal”.
Pro-government media outlets alleged that Ismayil had met two individuals employed by the United States Congress and that she gave them a list of opposition members working covertly for the government. They accused the two US nationals of spying.
The US embassy dismissed the espionage claims that the individuals visited Azerbaijan "for intelligence purposes" as "absurd". Its statement noted that "congressional staff delegations routinely visit Azerbaijan to meet with embassy staff, Azerbaijani officials, and civil society representatives. They do so to better inform our government’s legislative efforts regarding Azerbaijan and the rest of the region."
Ismayil says she had a routine meeting with congressional staffers, but nothing more.
“I didn’t have any list. I can’t give away a state secret because I don’t possess any. I’m not an official who might hold state secrets; I’m just a journalist. I publish everything I investigate, and none of it could constitute a state secret.”
As for the secret police document, Ismayil disclosed its source to prosecutors on February 21. She said she did so only because her source, Ramin Nagiyev, a former National Security Ministry officer now living in France, had revealed it was him on his Facebook page.
Announcing her plan to do so, she stated, “I didn’t reveal the name of my source before, as I’m a journalist. I left him that right.... Since he himself has revealed his name, I see no obstacle to giving it to the investigator.”
Levelling accusations like espionage and treason is a new step for Azerbaijan, even though independent journalists are consistently pressured.
Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the US government’s Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued a strongly worded condemnation of the charges brought against Ismayil.
“Ms. Ismayilova has been the target of consistent and sordid attacks by the government because of her investigative journalism. The current charges against her include espionage on behalf of the United States. These charges are clearly fabricated and punitive in nature,” he said, urging the Azerbaijani government to “stop its harassment of all journalists and to respect freedom of the media, a commitment it has undertaken as a participating state of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe”.
Cardin added that the actions taken against Ismayil were “part of an unfortunate string of politically-motivated arrests of Azerbaijanis who are exercising their rights to free speech”.
Ayten Farhadova, an investigative journalist like Ismayil, believes the authorities are trying to sideline her colleague and stop her working.
“As long as she is turning up for questioning, she’s distracted from her investigations. That’s exactly hat the authorities want – to stop articles on their corrupt activities seeing the light of day,” Farhadova said. “They are trying to pressure her psychologically, and also to intimate all investigative journalists so that [their] activity comes to an end.”
Although prosecutors have placed travel restrictions on Ismayil, it seems unlikely they will curb her spirit. She says she has several major investigative reports close to publication.
“It doesn’t matter whether they arrest me or not – this material is going to be published,” she said.
Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR reporter in Azerbaijan.