Cowardly Targeting of Award-Winning Investigative Journalist Shows the True Face of the Azerbaijani Regime

The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) calls upon the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release the imprisoned journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and to put an end to the campaign of harassment launched against her exactly 4 years ago.


Known for her high-profile investigations exposing Azerbaijan’s corrupt elite, including family members of President Ilham Aliyev, Khadija Ismayilova became the victim of an appalling blackmail attempt in 2012. She received an anonymous letter on March 7, 2012, demanding that she stop working on her anti-corruption investigation.


Ismayilova’s investigations revealed a far-reaching web of corruption across the ruling elite, with illicit enrichment of those in power estimated at billions of dollars. The author of the letter threatened to publically defame her by publishing an illegally taped video containing images of her private life, unless she stopped her investigative work. But Ismayilova refused succumb to blackmail; instead, she went public and announced that despite the threats and intimidation she would not stop her work.


On seeing that the journalist was not going to back down from her principles, an intimate video of Ismayilova with her partner was distributed via social networks. Immediately after the dissemination of the video, a large-scale smear campaign was launched against Ismayilova via pro-government media, where her private life became the subject of discussion for several months. Violating her right to privacy, propagandists claimed that as an unmarried women, her relationship with a man violated national traditions and values. For this reason, her critics argued that Khadija Ismayilova had no moral standing to criticize anyone, including the top political leadership in Azerbaijan. During the course of the harassment campaign, the journalist received death threats and calls to leave Azerbaijan due to her actions.


The fact that an organized harassment campaign was launched against the journalist immediately after the dissemination of the video clearly indicates that the Azerbaijani authorities are behind this incident.


Four years on, Ismayilova’s appeals to law enforcement agencies have yielded no results; the authorities have effectively refused to properly investigate the case.


An alternative investigation conducted by civil society activists, however, revealed that professional video equipment was installed in Ismayilova’s two-room rented apartment, where she lived in the summer of 2011. This equipment enabled remote monitoring in real time. IRFS employees involved in the investigation found clear traces of cameras that had been secretly mounted, concealed behind  the walls in all of the rooms (including bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and toilet) of the apartment. All cameras were connected via cable to a single hub, which through a dedicated Internet cable transmitted all information to the observation point that was outside the apartment.


The investigation also revealed that an additional dedicated line had been installed in the journalist’s apartment in June 2011, when she was abroad. The Azerbaijan Telecommunications Company ATS employee who installed this line said that he had done so on the instructions of  his management.


The fact that the intruders were provided with technical support by the state telecommunication company is a strong indicator that high-level state agencies, likely the special services, were behind this shocking invasion of privacy.


It is now evident that the special services of Azerbaijan are behind this attempted blackmail and illegal invasion of privacy. The special services have a grim record when it comes to illegal surveillance, having repeatedly targeted government opponents including well-known journalists and civil society activists over the last 12 years. The national intelligence agencies have illegally collected data on the personal lives of government critics with the consent of the top political leadership for many years. In addition to Ismayilova, six more people were blackmailed by the special services from 2005 to 2015 in exchange for political loyalty.


None of the complaints regarding privacy violations have resulted in judicial relief for the victims.


At the same time, the political scandal inside the government revealed that illegal surveillance goes beyond government opponents. The Minister of National Security Minister, Eldar Mahmudov, and Communications Minister Ali Abbasov were both unexpectedly dismissed in October 2015. Dozens of senior officials from both ministries were arrested on charges of abuse of power, following revelations that they had initiated illegal wiretapping of some members of the ruling elite.


This shows that when it is in the interests of the ruling elite, and there is the required political will, the perpetrators of illegal wiretapping can be identified and sanctioned. But when a crime is carried out against opponents of the regime, there is total impunity.


IRFS believes that the authorities’ brutal campaign against Khadija is directly related to her work as an investigative journalist. ‘By starting a smear campaign, the authorities hoped that they would be able to demoralize the journalist, forcing her to leave the country and end her career. But on seeing that they could not break Ismayilova’s will, the authorities instead introduced a restrictive law, significantly impeding journalists’ ability to carry out investigations’, comments IRFS director Emin Huseynov. ‘Under the new law, all information regarding  the founders of legal entities was declared a trade secret, and removed from the publicly accessible register. Thus, the authorities essentially turned Azerbaijan into an offshore country with legislation that facilitates money laundering. When even after this Ismayilova continued her work, the authorities decided to arrest her on fabricated charges and hand her a lengthy prison sentence. Prison conditions pose a real threat to Ismayilova’s life, taking into account the fact that critics of the regime have previously died in prison under strange circumstances’, said Huseynov. 


IRFS calls upon the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately release Ismayilova as well as the other journalists and human rights activists who have been detained on politically motivated charges.


IRFS also calls upon international organizations, in particular the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to put pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities and to urge them to comply with their basic obligations to uphold freedom of expression, and to end the arbitrary arrests and harassment of critics.


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