Released But Not Free: Azerbaijan's Government Fails to Silence Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova began her video conference to a room of parliamentarians in Brussels by apologizing to the people of her Baku neighborhood for losing Internet and electricity because of her.
The Azerbaijani investigative journalist was invited to a European Parliament panel discussion on human rights violations in Azerbaijan but the conditions of Ismayilova’s 2016 release after spending 17 months behind bars included a travel ban, so a Skype call was her only option.
Ismayilova had exposed the accumulated wealth of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and his family, linking them to alleged corruption scandals. Her supporters are convinced her December 2014 arrest was a consequence of her reporting.
On February 6, Aliyev arrived in Brussels to kick-off negotiations for a new partnership agreement between the EU and his country. Aware of Azerbaijan's poor human rights record, a number of parliamentarians organized an event on the issue to take place during his visit and the Azeri government got wind of it.
So some 20 minutes before Ismayilova’s video conference with Brussels was scheduled to start, her Internet connection at home was cut off.
Five minutes later, the electricity was shut off for her entire district.
The former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty program host and senior investigator with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project looked out of the window and noticed two SUV-type cars with satellite dishes on their roofs parked near her house. Two of the local cell providers blocked her service.
Cool-headed and used to government harassment, Ismayilova jumped in a taxi and drove around the city to find an Internet signal. "Wandering around the city," she said she successfully called in and spoke to the panel for 10 minutes.
So as not to lose connection, she told the taxi driver to park at a nearby gas station before driving through a tunnel. As soon as the taxi pulled over, she said it was approached and surrounded by three police cars and two other cars with plain-clothed officers.
While Ismayilova was finishing up her speech, the driver got out of the car to deal with the officers. She was able to answer one question from the panel before her connection was interrupted.
A policeman got into the driver’s seat of the taxi and told her he had to drive it to the car pound, she said.
One of her colleagues happened to be driving by and the police gave her permission to get into her colleague’s car. She said her phone service was returned an hour later.
Ismayilova told OCCRP that she remained concentrated on her speech throughout the ordeal because it was important to deliver her message to the European Parliament.
"The government’s action to stop me from doing that proved that it was important," she said.
A panel participant and member of the European Parliament Kati Piri told OCCRP that Ismayilova’s experience is "a signal of really how repressive this regime is."
When Azerbaijan in 2016 released 17 human rights defenders, journalists and political activists — including Ismayilova — the European Parliament had hoped that "this could be the start of loosening up the tight grip they have on civil society,” Piri said. “But we see the repression got worse."
When Ismayilova was arrested she was first charged with inciting a man to commit suicide, then with large-scale misappropriation and embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of power.
"The arrest of Ismayilova is nothing but orchestrated intimidation, which is a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice," OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said back then.
In September 2015 Ismayilova was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison but released last year after continuous international pressure on Azerbaijan.
In a joint letter addressed to top EU officials and signed by 76 human rights groups worldwide, the groups urged the EU officials to use Aliyev’s high-profile visit on February 6, to insist on his commitment to "concrete, lasting human rights reforms in Azerbaijan."
"Deepening engagement with a government without securing concrete and sustainable human rights improvements sends a message that these issues are not of concern to the EU," the letter reads.
As Ismayilova was hunting for Internet connection up and down Baku, Aliyev was shaking hands with European Council President Donald Tusk.
"Azerbaijan is important for Europe's energy security and diversification of supplies," Tusk said after the meeting.
The key priority for both sides, he said, was the finalization of the so-called Southern Gas Corridor — a pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe that would reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas.
But Tusk also added that during the meeting he “stressed the importance” of human rights issues, including freedom of expression.
"The EU believes that an open society is the best guarantee for long term stability and prosperity," he said. "We look forward to continuing to work as partners on these issues."
According to an October 2016 list from the Working Group of Civil Society of Azerbaijan, there are still 94 wrongly imprisoned activists in Azerbaijan.
South Caucasus Director at Human Rights Watch Giorgi Gogia said it’s important to use this renewed engagement with Azerbaijan to push for the release of all political prisoners. "The upgrade in the relationship should not happen at the expense of human rights," he said.
Though the European Parliament has the final say on any agreement, Piri said they have so far been left out of the discussions since they began on Feb. 7.
"It’s not yet clear how the negotiations are going to be used by the EU to push for rights improvements," Gogia told OCCRP. "And that’s what needs to be made clear."