On 1 September 2015, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was given a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for ‘economic crimes, including illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion’. PEN believes the charges against Ismayilova are politically motivated and a result of her work exposing high-level government corruption. Ismayilova is a presenter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and is well known – both within Azerbaijan and internationally – for writing about the Azerbaijani government’s crackdown on opposition voices. In recognition of her courage, Ismayilova received this year’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from PEN American Center.
President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar, a former Soviet communist, in 2003 and has maintained a hardline approach towards free expression. Human rights organisations are alarmed at the numerous prosecutions of members of the media in Azerbaijan, attacks on other dissenting voices and the authorities’ brutal response to peaceful protests. Although violations of freedom of expression are nothing new in the southern Caucasus state, attacks on and prosecutions of journalists, bloggers and human rights activists have risen sharply in recent years. PEN is currently monitoring the cases of twenty-six Azerbaijani journalists and writers who have faced continuous harassment and interference from the authorities or are imprisoned.
Ismayilova was arrested on 5 December last year and the following day was charged under Article 125 of the penal code with provoking the suicide attempt of a fellow opposition journalist. In April, her accuser told Radio Free Europe that he had retracted his complaint. However, Ismayilova was subsequently charged with committing various financial offences. Her trial began in August after several months of pre-trial detention.
One of Ismayilova’s reports for Radio Free Europe alleged that the Azerbaijani government had awarded the management of lucrative gold mines to a company associated with the president’s family. She also wrote about how the family ‘appropriated state contracts without any tenders, illegally privatised state banks’ and transferred millions ‘to industrial enterprises that would later be sold for pennies’. In her statement to the court, Ismayilova referred to the government’s ‘repression machine’ and condemned the presidential family for depositing ‘stolen money … in offshore accounts … and … evading taxes’. She also observed the irony of being accused of the same crimes she has sought to expose and claimed, ‘I will build homes from the stones thrown at me … I might be in prison, but the work will continue.’
After she was sentenced, her mother, Elmira Ismayilova, wrote in The Guardian: ‘The government is frightened of Khadija and wants to silence her and everyone else who dares to speak out. [It] has a total monopoly on power and information.’ She went on to criticise the European Union, pointing out that ‘Azerbaijan has enjoyed all the benefits of being in Europe’s club while breaking all its rules. It has hosted the European Games and the Eurovision Song Contest. It has even chaired the Council of Europe … All the foreign officials who have come to Khadija’s trial should directly confront President Aliyev and tell him to release Khadija and all political prisoners.’ Her daughter remains equally defiant. In a letter from prison she wrote, ‘Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced. Keep fighting for right, and for good. Be loud, and be public. The people of Azerbaijan need to know that their rights are supported.’
According to PEN, Ismayilova has been the target of a relentless campaign of intimidation and judicial harassment over the last three years because of her journalism. In March 2012, following an investigation into the alleged involvement of President Aliyev’s family in lucrative construction projects in Baku ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, she received anonymous threats and warnings to stop her investigation; in April 2013, videos secretly recorded in the journalist’s apartment were posted online; in February 2014, she was called as a witness in an investigation into the leaking of state secrets, in which she was accused of handing files on Azerbaijani opposition politicians to the US intelligence services; and in October of the same year she was detained for several hours by the authorities at Baku airport following a meeting with Council of Europe officials in Strasbourg. In addition, in February this year, she was convicted of defamation after a former member of the Popular Front party accused her of having defamed him in an article in which she exposed his work in subverting opposition organisations. She was fined 2,500 manat (£1,500). In May her appeal against this sentence was postponed indefinitely.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern at the seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence imposed on investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, which seems to have been motivated by political considerations in response to her legitimate work as a journalist; calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally and to overturn her conviction and sentence; and urging the Azerbaijani government to stop intimidating critical voices and to comply with its obligations under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Azerbaijan is a state party) to protect the right to freedom of expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President Ilham Aliyev
19 Istiglaliyyat Street, Baku AZ1066, Republic of Azerbaijan
Fax: +994 124 923 543
His Excellency Zakir Qaralov
Office of the Prosecutor General
7 Rafibeyli Street, Baku AZ1001, Republic of Azerbaijan
His Excellency Fakhraddin Gurbanov
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan
4 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL
Fax: +44 20 7937 1783