IRFS strongly condemns the 7.5- year prison sentence rendered against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova who was convicted of embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power, following a brief trial in Baku.
IRFS believes the charges against Ismayilova are politically motivated and are a form of retribution for her groundbreaking reporting on the financial dealings of high-level Azerbaijani officials.
Ismayilova was detained on December 5, 2014 and has been held at the Kurdakhani investigative prison ever since. At the time of her arrest, Ismayilova was charged with inciting a former colleague to commit suicide. Eventually, prosecutors added the charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power. Legal proceedings in Azerbaijani courts are severely flawed and fail to meet international standards for fair trials. During a brief trial – which only lasted five weeks – the prosecution failed to present any evidence to prove the charges against Ismayilova.
Ismayilova is a well-known journalist, famous for her investigations that revealed apparent nepotism and corruption within the highest levels of Azerbaijan’s ruling establishment. For years, she had exposed multi-billion corruption, tax evasion and the misuse of public funds by corrupt officials. In 2012, Azerbaijan adopted amendments to its legislation making information of company founders a state secret. Many saw the move as a direct response to Ismayilova’s work.
Ismayilova continued her investigative work despite coming under mounting pressure to stop. Ismayilova had refused to be silenced after she was subjected to a blackmail attempt the in 2012, when she received intimate photos taken of her with a note stating “You should behave. Or you will be defamed.” The Azerbaijani authorities have failed to seriously investigate the violations of privacy in this case, and no one has been brought to justice.
Ismayilova’s conviction and sentence on September 1st— just two months ahead of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections – come as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance. These include the prosecution of human rights defenders and critics of the government, and a series of lengthy jail sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process.
Under international law, Azerbaijan has undertaken to hold free elections under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the people. IRFS emphasizes that elections confer legitimacy only under the assumption that voters can express their will freely. Furthermore, conditions that allow for legitimate elections require ongoing opportunities to present ideas and proposals on an even playing field. This requires not only the absence of coercion, but also for access to media and the possibility for non-government organizations and grass-root movements to carry out their work.
Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes shortly after the brutal murder of Rasim Aliyev, journalist and chairman of IRFS – which IRFS believes is an apparent act of revenge over IRFS’s work to promote free expression. Although three weeks have passed since this barbaric murder, the authorities failed to bring to justice the staff of City Hospital #1 who failed to provide proper medical care to Aliyev. Instead, the head of state gave a prestigious honorary award to Minister of Health Ogtay Shiraliyev whose Ministry is also responsible for the death of yet another journalist –Rafig Tagi.
In November 2011, prominent writer and journalist Rafig Tagi was attacked in the street near his home by an unknown assailant who stabbed him seven times. Following surgery, Tagi had appeared to be in recovery, but he then died four days after the attack under circumstances the local media community considered suspicious. His death was initially attributed to choking; however, the Ministry of Health later stated that the cause of death was peritonitis.
The harsh prison conditions in Azerbaijan can have quite serious health consequences for journalists, activists and human rights defenders who find themselves behind bars. In a tragic example, in August 2009, editor-in-chief of the minority Talysh language newspaper Tolishi Sedo and Talysh cultural activist Novruzali Mammadov died in custody while serving a 10-year prison sentence on charges of high treason. Prior to his death, Mammadov had reported a number of serious health issues, some of which were likely exacerbated during a 15-day period when prison officials kept him in solitary confinement and deprived him of bedding and warm clothes. The authorities failed to provide Mammadov with adequate medical care and kept him in prison despite widespread international calls for his release on humanitarian grounds.
In March 2005, Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov was murdered in a well-organized attack that appeared to be a contract-style killing. After receiving a number of death threats, he was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building in Baku, where he died on the scene. More than ten years later, the authorities have failed to adequately investigate this case and no one has been brought to justice for the attack. Huseynov was well known as a hard-hitting investigative journalist who was highly critical of the authorities. His case has become deeply symbolic, reminding the Azerbaijani media community of the courage needed to pursue investigative journalism and of the inherent risks associated with this work.
The impunity for hundreds of attacks against journalists – in five cases, murders — shows there is a widespread sense that journalists who criticize the government can be attacked without risk of punishment. IRFS fears for Ismayilova’s life and calls on international community to immediately engage with Azerbaijani authorities to secure Ismayilova’s life and freedom.
IRFS urges the Azerbaijani government to immediately release Khadija Ismayilova as well as all those exercising their rights to expression who have been arbitrary arrested, detained or and prosecuted.
IRFS calls on international community to use all possible bilateral and multilateral opportunities to hold Azerbaijan to account for its freedom of expression and human rights obligations, particularly in the run-up to November’s parliamentary elections.
The Council of Europe, recognized as a pan-European human rights monitoring organization, should apply sanctions against the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan, for a series of outrageous crimes against human rights. These crimes include but are not limited to the murder of the four journalists, Elmar Huseynov, Alim Kazimli, Rafig Tagi and Rasim Aliyev; allowing for the death in prison of another journalist, Novruzali Mammadov; the sentencing of Khadija Ismayilova and a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance.
The unprecedented crackdown against free expression continues with impunity. The verdict against Khadija Ismayilova is perhaps the final nail in the coffin of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.