Azerbaijani Government Blocks Journalist from US Commission Hearing
Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and OCCRP partner facing criminal libel charges in Azerbaijan, could not attend a hearing scheduled at the US Capitol to testify on fighting corruption due to a travel ban she claims is illegal.
Ismayilova was one of four witnesses scheduled to testify in Washington, DC today, Nov. 19, before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the US Helsinki Commission. However, the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Azerbaijan has forbidden her from leaving Azerbaijan, saying her participation is needed as a witness in a case “on revealing the state secret.”
The US Helsinki Commission is an independent US Government agency created in 1976 and comprised largely of members of Congress but including representatives from the departments of State, Defense and Commerce as well.
Azerbaijan law officials have accused Ismayilova of leaking state secrets and, although she has not been indicted, she was called to testify in this case. She was interrogated after publishing what appeared to be a Ministry of National Security (MNS) report to her Facebook page on Feb. 17. The report described the recruitment of an informant through blackmail. In a baffling twist, however, MNS has issued a letter saying that the report was forged, calling into question how it could be a state secret.
Elman Hasanov, who is pursuing a private prosecution against Ismayiloya for libel, says that he was named as the informant in the supposed MNS report, and that she also published a falsified document claiming that he raped a woman in 1992 and used connections to have the charges dropped, after which the victim allegedly committed suicide.
Ismayilova's libel trial is ongoing. If convicted, she could face up to three years in prison.
Ismayilova says she expunged all reference to Hasanov from the supposed MNS report, the authenticity of which she stated at the time she could not verify. She further denies publishing any documents regarding the alleged rape case and claims she knows nothing about it.
Although the travel ban has been in place for over a month, Ismayilova has not been questioned during that period. She claims that the Criminal Procedural Code of Azerbaijan does not allow law enforcement to place a travel ban on a witness without a court order or written commitment signed by the witness themselves.
According to Ismayilova, she sent two letters to the Chief Prosecutor contesting the travel ban, one of which was specifically about the congressional hearing. In both cases, she was told her request was under consideration. She plans to sue the prosecutor’s office to regain freedom of movement.
Unable to attend in person, Ismayilova sent written testimony to the US Helsinki Committee, which she also published on Facebook. This is not the first hearing she has been blocked from during her libel trial. She was not permitted to join an Azerbaijani parliamentary working group on political prisoners on Oct. 22, despite being invited the day before. According to Vugar Aliyev of the presidential administration, other organizations had protested her participation in the group, although the meeting had not yet started.
“This is the price to pay for telling the truth,” says Ismayilova. “It will not stop me from doing my job, telling the truth. I have more time for legal battles with the suppressing regime now.”