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Top Azerbaijani Journalist Behind Bars

Arrest of Khadija Ismayilova reflects determined campaign to "extinguish freedom of expression", says leading editor.
By Afgan Mukhtarli
  • Khadija Ismayilova. (Photo courtesy of Kh. Ismayilova)
    Khadija Ismayilova. (Photo courtesy of Kh. Ismayilova)

After attending a Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg this October, Azerbaijan’s top investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova said she had been warned she would be arrested on returning to Baku, but she came home anyway.

On December 5, Ismayilova was arrested and charged, two days after the president’s right-hand man, Ramiz Mehdiev, effectively pronounced her guilty.

This came at the end of a year in which numerous leading human rights defenders, journalists and opposition figures have been detained and jailed in Azerbaijan.

Ismayilova, who reports for the Prague-based RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, was immediately ordered to spend two months in detention pending a criminal investigation into a charge of “pressuring someone to commit suicide”.

Prosecutors allege that Ismayilova used her position of authority to get one Tural Mustafayev dismissed from RFE/RL and also from Meydan TV, an Azerbaijani TV station based abroad. They say Mustafayev attempted suicide when he was left without a job.

Ismayilova’s lawyer Elton Guliyev says these allegations are entirely without foundation.

“These charges lack any basis in law,” he said. “Khadija Ismayilova is certain that her arrest is connected with her activity as a journalist, with her investigations.”

Ismayilova’s arrest has led to a storm of protests from fellow-journalists and rights activists in Azerbaijan and abroad. Many of them believe the authorities wanted her taken out of circulation because of her investigations into the financial dealings of Azerbaijan’s leaders, including attempts to trace funds held in offshore accounts.

“The authorities say journalists are never arrested because of their professional activities,” Mehman Aliyev, head of the independent news agency Turan, said. “So why do things like this only happen to journalists who criticise the government? Everything points to a policy of extinguishing freedom of expression and freedom of thought in Azerbaijan.”

The OSCE’s media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatović, issued a statement on December 5 saying, “The arrest of Ismayilova is nothing but orchestrated intimidation, which is a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice…. I repeat my call on the authorities in Azerbaijan to stop this practice, which is detrimental to media freedom.”

Azerbaijan is a member of the OSCE and also of the Council of Europe (CoE), which describes itself as “the continent's leading human rights organisation”. In November, Azerbaijan completed a six-month chairmanship of the CoE’s decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers – a period which saw accelerated numbers of human rights defenders and others being locked up.

The chair of the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly, Anne Brasseur, met Ismayilova in October at an event the assembly hosted to discuss repression in Azerbaijan.

“Khadija Ismayilova is one of the long-standing partners of the Council of Europe. I met her in my office in Strasbourg during the assembly’s last part-session and I was shocked by the information she provided to me regarding pressure and intimidation exercised against her, as well as other human rights defenders in Azerbaijan,” Brasseur said. “Taking into account the recent arrests of prominent human rights defenders – many of whom are valuable partners of the Council of Europe – I have to express my deep concern at her arrest. 

In Washington, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that “we are deeply troubled by restrictions on civil society activities, including on journalists in Azerbaijan, and are increasingly concerned that the government there is not living up to its international commitments and obligations”.

Officials in Azerbaijan appear wholly unconcerned about these international obligations, and about ruffling feathers in Western capitals.

The head of political affairs in President Ilham Aliev’s office, Ali Hasanov, told the AzerTaj news agency that Ismayilova was no more than a suspected criminal.

“The Prosecutor General’s statement rules out any kind of political motive to her arrest,” Hasanov said, without explaining why.

That being the case, he said, criticisms of the case voiced inside Azerbaijan and abroad were “prejudiced and unfounded”. “They create the impression of a process being directed from a single centre,” he added.

Hasanov did not say where this “centre” was located, but the theme of an international plot against Azerbaijan has been a recurring one this year.

In a major article published two days before Ismayilova’s arrest, Hasanov’s boss, presidential administration chief Ramiz Mehdiyev, set out the official position in no uncertain terms. Before legal proceedings had got under way, Mehdiyev denounced Ismayilova, likening RFE/RL’s Azerbaijan reporting to “treason”. The bulk of his article was a lengthy complaint about Western-funded NGOs acting as a “fifth column” in Azerbaijan at a time when the government was upholding the stability of the state.

For a government that has maintained good relations with Western states on energy and security matters in recent years, this new hostile stance is a marked change, and is strongly reminiscent of the Kremlin’s mix of aggressive rhetoric and wounded pride.

The authorities’ attention has been focused on Ismayilova for some time. In 2012, video footage shot covertly inside her home and intended to damage her was uploaded to the internet. She refused to be cowed, and forced the prosecution service to start looking for the perpetrators. Two-and-a-half years later, the official investigation has come up with nothing. (Reported at the time in  Azeri Journalist Defies Blackmailers . )

In February 2014, she was questioned in an investigation into the alleged revelation of state secrets, apparently to two members of the US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee. That investigation is still open. (See Top Azeri Journalist Targeted With "Spy" Charge .)

In September, a former opposition party member called Elman Hasanov (also known as Elman Turkoǧlu), brought a libel action against Ismayilova. He claimed that she had identified him as an informer for Azerbaijan’s secret police, a charge she flatly denies. That case is still in the courts.

One of Ismayilova’s defence lawyers, Khalid Bagirov, is now under attack. Azerbaijan’s law society, the Collegium of Advocates, disbarred him on December 10 for saying there was no justice in the country. He had been arguing in court that the verdict passed against another client, Ilgar Mammadov, was entirely unfair.

“The Collegium deemed this to be a speech against the state,” Bagirov said.

Mammadov, head of the REAL movement, was given a seven-year jail term in March after being found guilty of inciting a riot he did not attend. (See Two Opposition Figures Jailed in Azerbaijan.)

Bagirov has defended many of those detained and prosecuted in recent months. Apart from Ismayilova and Ilgar Mammadov, they include leading human rights defender Leyla Yunus, newspaper editor Hilal Mammadov, blogger Abdul Abilov, and youth activists from the NIDA group. (See  Azerbaijan Tidies Away Human Rights Critics for some recent cases.)

Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living abroad.

 

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