A court in Azerbaijan sentenced Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist whose investigations of staggering corruption among the country's ruling elite won her international awards, to seven years and six months in jail Tuesday on charges she and supporters say are revenge for her work. The proceedings against Ismayilova mark a turning point for Azerbaijan as it cracks down on dissent and turns away from two decades of bridge-building with the West.
Ismayilova's conviction on charges including tax evasion, embezzlement, running an illegal business, and abuse of power mirrors proceedings against several other top human rights activists in recent months as Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's strongman president, has increased his political control. Prosecutors initially charged Ismayilova in December with inciting her former boyfriend to commit suicide, then dropped the charges after he said that he had been coerced to make false statements against her. Police also ransacked the Baku office of Radio Free Europe, where Ismayilova worked, and ordered it closed.
Most other prominent activists in Azerbaijan are in prison, awaiting trial, have fled the country, or gone underground. Earlier this month, a court gave the ailing activists Leyla and Arif Yunus lengthy terms their daughter called a "death sentence." The charges have drawn widespread condemnation from Western governments and rights groups, effectively scrapping a concerted effort by Aliyev to portray the country as a progressive, modernizing state.
"They have forced the repression machine to cover its disgraceful acts with even more shame. The more lies that were exposed, the more they were forced to tell more lies," Ismayilova said in her final statement to the court, according to Radio Free Europe. The judge did not allow her to read the whole statement.
Ismayilova, 39, earned the ire of Azerbaijan's government through a series of articles exploring how Aliyev's family and friends — particularly his wife Mehriban and daughters Leyla and Arzu, who flaunt their lavish lifestyles across Europe online and in the media — seemingly exploited their ties to earn billions. The articles caused a sensation in Azerbaijan, which has splashed its petrodollars on a sophisticated Western lobbying campaign to portray it as a squeaky-clean emerging democracy despite Aliyev's firm grip on power. By 2012, Azerbaijan's parliament changed its laws to make company ownership records confidential — a move many saw as a direct response to Ismayilova's reporting. Soon afterwards, Ismayilova received a letter with stills from a video of her having sex with her boyfriend on a hidden camera installed in her apartment. After she refused to back down on her reporting, the video was posted online — deeply taboo in Azerbaijan's conservative Muslim society.
In her final statement to the court, Ismayilova said her trial had not weakened her resolve to expose wrongdoing in Aliyev's government. "I will build homes from the stones thrown at me," she said. "Yes, I might be in prison, but the work will continue. Because the work we do is very important."
Since Ismayilova's arrest, her colleagues have continued her investigative work on a website run by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Recent articles have documented the staggering array of companies Aliyev's daughters use to control their assets and detailed family real estate holdings in London and Moscow. While behind bars, Ismayilova has received press awards from groups including PEN and the National Press Club.
"Khadija's case is an example of politics, not law. There was no merit, ever, to any of the charges against her and there was no due process during her trial." Nenad Pejic, editor-in-chief of Radio Free Europe, said in a statement. "The authorities simply decided to silence her at any price."
Western governments have roundly condemned Ismayilova's trial. The State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by the verdict, and urged Azerbaijan to release Ismayilova and the other activists. "This case is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press," spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. "As Azerbaijan's President Aliyev himself recently noted, freedom of the mass media is an integral part of democratic principles, and its violation is contrary to the interests of Azerbaijan."
David Lidington, the British Minister for Europe, said he was "deeply concerned" by her conviction on "questionable" allegations and asked Azerbaijan to renew the sentence. Isabel Santos, human rights chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's parliamentary assembly, said the charges were "a politically motivated response to Ms. Ismayilova's work to hold her country's leaders accountable."
Leading rights groups also joined in the criticism. "The outrageous verdict against Khadija Ismayilova shows the Azerbaijani authorities' willingness to subvert the law to exact revenge against critics," said Ken Roth, director of Human Rights Watch. Sport for Rights, a coalition of international groups founded by the jailed Azeri activist Rasul Jafarov, called on Western governments to break off relations with Azerbaijan until Ismayilova is freed.
Azerbaijan's government vehemently denies its cases against Ismayilova are political, and says Western criticism is part of a nefarious campaign by intelligence services to destabilize the country. In an interview in Baku in June, Ali Hasanov, a senior advisor to Aliyev, told BuzzFeed News that there "are 50,000 reporters like Khadija in Azerbaijan. Of those 50,000, we jailed one of them. So the other 49,999 are still going to write what they see and observe and what they feel like," Hasanov said. "You think nobody wrote about how we jailed Khadija Ismayilova?"
Senior officials, however, have barely attempted to conceal the government's vendetta against Ismayilova. The day before her arrest, presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev published a 60-page diatribe against Western "colonialism" that singled out Ismayilova for accusations of "treason" by being part of a "fifth column" serving as proxies for foreign secret services.
When asked why he had ordered Ismayilova's arrest, Aliyev said that he felt obliged to defend his family's honor against her accusations of corruption, a source with direct knowledge of the conversation told BuzzFeed News. "She can call me a thief, a dictator, a monster — I don't care. But when she goes after my wife and my daughters, as a man from the Caucasus I must respond," Aliyev said, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
Izmayilova's mother Elmira told BuzzFeed News in June that the proceedings showed her daughter's reporting was on the money.
"She found all his thievery and she showed it to the public," she said, referring to Aliyev. "If she's in prison, that means they're scared."
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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