Azerbaijan: Court Interrupts Ismayilova Statement; Verdict Postponed
In a statement prepared for the final day of her trial, journalist Khadija Ismayilova began a spirited take-down of the Azerbaijani authorities that have detained her since December, calling them a “repression machine” which would soon collapse.
But she hadn’t gotten to the end of it before the court stopped the proceedings and adjourned the case until tomorrow.
Ismayilova, an investigative reporter for OCCRP and Azadliq Radio (the Azerbaijani branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), is on trial at Baku’s Court of Grave Crimes for charges including embezzlement, tax evasion, running an illegal business, and inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide – charges human rights groups say are politically motivated.
Ismayilova told the court today that evidence such as Facebook and SMS messages had been improperly investigated and charges fabricated against her based on nothing but “imagination”.
She defended herself against accusations of tax evasion, saying: “I have paid taxes on every single penny earned.”
Referring to the prosecutor’s case against her as “slanderous”, she said of the embezzlement charges: “My colleagues and I have written extensively about both embezzlement and misappropriation. Whether it was revealing facts about an asphalt road that cost 60 million manats per kilometer [even if the actual cost was around 6 to 7 million]; the flag square worth 30 million, the costly Eurovision preparations, Crystal Hall, and so on.”
She added: “But unlike the prosecutor, our reporting and writing was always based on concrete facts and documents and not on assumptions.”
Ismayilova said that allegations of running an illegal business were her “favorite” of the charges since her investigative stories had touched on what she says are the illegal business activities of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Her speech went on to say she was “not thinking about” any potential prison sentence, but how she could turn the situation into an opportunity to expose wrongdoing in the upper echelons of the Azerbaijani government.
“I will build homes from the stones thrown at me,” she said.
The full version of the statement is available here.
Ismayilova’s trial began Jul. 24 and has been fraught with tension and controversy. Independent journalists attempting to cover the hearings have been pelted with stones, attacked by people emerging from the courtroom, detained by police and repeatedly refused access to hearings.
Supporters and international observers have also been refused entry to the courtroom, although Ismayilova’s mother and a handful of diplomats have been able to attend some hearings.
A motion by Ismayilova’s lawyers to extend the evidentiary phase of the trial was refused by the judge, and the prosecutor accused Ismayilova of deliberately seeking to delay the trial.
For her part, Ismayilova has referred to the proceedings as “an express court,” complaining she had little time to confer with her lawyers over matters in her defense.
Before her arrest on Dec. 5, 2014, Ismayilova reported extensively on corruption in the upper echelons of the Azerbaijani government, including apparent nepotism among the friends and family of President Ilham Aliyev.
After she was taken into detention, the office of Azadliq Radio was raided by police. Twelve journalists who closely worked with Ismayilova were taken in for questioning, then released without charge.
Ismayilova believes her investigative work is the real reason behind her legal problems, claiming at a hearing on Jul. 24 that Aliyev “imprisoned me to hinder my journalistic activity.”
Her first major story that touched on corruption within the Azerbaijani First Family, written for RFE/RL, revealed that the privatization of parts of the state airline AZAL – including a bank – had bypassed an official committee for privatization.
The bank’s two new owners included the president’s daughter Arzu Aliyeva.
Ismayilova went on to reveal how the Azerbaijani government awarded the rights to a gold mine to President Aliyev’s family, as well as how the First Family had profited from the construction of a US$ 134 million concert hall to host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.
Long before her arrest, Ismayilova suffered repeated harassment that she believes was linked to her work.
Unknown agents hid a video camera in her bedroom and recorded her in intimate contact with her boyfriend, threatening her with exposure. The videos were released in the spring of 2012.
She was also hit with a travel ban in October 2014 as she attempted to attend a human rights conference in Prague.
Meanwhile officials have publicly denounced Ismayilova.
Ramiz Mehdiyev, President Aliyev’s chief of staff, issued a scathing 60-page report in December accusing Ismayilova of “defiance” and showing a “destructive attitude toward well-known members of the Azerbaijani community”.
The statement also accused Azadliq Radio, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, of working “for a foreign secret service.”
One of Ismayilova’s most recent projects, published in summer 2014, was a story linking President Aliyev’s daughters to ownership of Azerbaijan’s largest mobile operator, Azercell Telecom.
Since her detention began, OCCRP has continued Ismayilova’s work exposing corruption in President Aliyev’s regime through an investigative journalism series called The Khadija Project.
OCCRP revealed in May this year that a company close to Aliyev and his family had likely walked off with more than US$ 1 billion in a takeover of the Azerbaijani state’s stake in Azercell.
This month, OCCRP journalists created an interactive tool to document the billions stolen in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has a poor record for free speech. According to human rights organizations, there are at least 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.