More recently, she was zeroing in on the activities of President Ilham
Aliyev and his friends and relatives. She has said that she never set
out to target them; their names just kept cropping up in her
Along the way, she started getting clear warnings —warnings other
journalists might have heeded. Ismayilova knew that they were telling
her to keep her nose out of places it didn’t belong.
But for her, running wasn’t an option.
So after returning from another of her frequent foreign trips — trips in
which she spread the word about the crackdown on journalism and human
rights in her country — she plunged back into her investigative
The more she dug, the clearer the picture became. Her investigations
documented the outright plundering of the Azerbaijani treasury. She was
uncovering a major league money grab. Based on her ongoing
investigations, the First Family and its cronies seemed to be leveraging
personal control of the former Soviet state’s transportation system,
banks, government mining operations and more.
The more she uncovered and reported, the more the government tried to
close off the access to key information. When that didn’t stop
Ismayilova, the threats of personal attacks began — outrageous,
demeaning and humiliating attacks.
Ismayilova told them she wouldn’t stop, so they followed through by
releasing hidden camera video of her most intimate moments.
The ploy backfired, however, and turned public sentiment in her favor,
Next they arrested her on what her employers, supporters and leading
journalism organizations consider to be ludicrous, trumped-up charges.
Death of an Investigative Journalist
Nearly a decade earlier, it had been the assassination of another
journalist that awakened the then-28-year-old reporter and inspired her
to devote her life to exposing corruption, consequences be damned.
“My colleague, Elmar Huseynov, he was killed,” Ismayilova said. “He used
to publish a very critical and independent magazine, ‘Monitor,’ which
highlighted high-level corruption cases and the President’s family being
involved in corrupt practices.
“So he was killed at his own doorstep.”
Ismayilova admits that, up until that time, she had been critical of
Huseynov’s work. She says his stories were not balanced and he rarely
verified what he was publishing as fact.
“I was so snobbish about what he was doing,” she said, “because I was
coming from this high standard journalism — English language journalism.
Sometimes his stories were not well done in terms of standard American
But on Wednesday, March 2, 2005, she says she came home, switched on the
television and watched a flash news report.
Someone had shot and killed Huseynov.
“At that moment, I remember it changed everything in my mind,” she said.
“I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do.
“That was the moment when I felt guilty. I started crying — I just
couldn’t control it. I couldn’t stop crying.
“I felt responsible. I felt it’s my fault as well. We killed him.
“He was a great journalist — very brave,” she said. “He was the only one
who was doing this brave journalism.”
She says she realized that, unlike the kind of work she had been doing,
Huseynov had been working on topics that were much more difficult to
report. He had tried his best to get all of the key documents to prove
his stories, but often failed, she said. Ismayilova now realized that
the proof was not that easy to get.
“But he was telling the truth to people,” she said, “which I didn’t do
because it was too difficult to do.”
Ismayilova Picks up the Torch
That’s when she says she vowed to help pick up where Huseynov had left
off, to raise the standards of journalism and to learn better ways of
documenting the corruption.
She found that help, in part, through OCCRP. Editor Drew Sullivan says
Ismayilova attended just about every training session the international
investigative reporting consortium offered.
“She was working for the English-speaking Caspian Business Daily,”
Sullivan says, “and I was impressed. She was at ease working with
documents and records, and she was able to understand complex business
Sullivan says he came to notice how tremendously motivated she was.
“It wasn’t long before I knew we had to bring her on board,” he said,
“and she’s been a thorn in the side of Azerbaijan’s First Family ever
Until 2009, Ismayilova says, the media were still very quiet in
Azerbaijan because of continued attacks on reporters who were writing
critical stories. But that year, she says, she began helping Washington
Post writer Andrew Higgins work on a
about the president’s children owning expensive real estate properties
“When this story was published and it came from the Washington Post, we
started discussing it, and it stopped the silence — it broke the
silence,” she said. And, she said, nobody denied that the children owned
“Before that, we had journalists saying, ‘Oh, this government, president
— they are thieves.’ It was all their own opinions — never facts. And
now we had facts to talk about — facts to refer to.”
A newspaper from the United States had done what local journalists had
not. “And then I thought, why is it that a Washington Post correspondent
is doing that, and we cannot?” she said.
A New Kind of Reporting for Azerbaijan
This kind of reporting was unprecedented in Azerbaijan, she said. She
and her fellow reporters learned from OCCRP how to fish for offshore
companies connected to the Aliyev family.
Right away, they reeled in a big one of their own.
Ismayilova and her colleagues started digging into bank privatization
records relating to the state airline company. They discovered that, in
the mix of privatization, one of the president’s daughters ended up
being one of the owners of a bank. As private citizens, they could
receive money and properties that otherwise would be illegal for the
President, himself, to receive.
In August, 2010, Ismayilova and fellow reporter Ulviyye Asadzade broke
“They broke the law to become a bank owner,” Ismayilova said. “We
published this story, proving every sentence there.”
Indeed, they proved that Arzu Aliyeva, the president’s daughter, was one
of the owners of Silk Way Bank.
The bank was part of a larger, recently privatized company that enjoyed
a near-complete monopoly over every aspect of airline service businesses
including the airline catering company, the airport taxi service and
even the job of maintaining the planes and helicopters.
It wouldn’t be the last time Ismayilova would follow the money and find
one or both of the president’s daughters at the other end of the trail.
“It’s not that I’m chasing them,” she said. “No, I’m not chasing them.
It’s just that, wherever I dig, they pop out of the documents — their
names pop out of them.”
There was no comment from the government about Arzu Aliyeva’s interest
in Silk Way Bank. However, the Aliyev regime began trying to silence the
voices that weren’t under its control.
A Dark History for Independent Media
For nearly a century, the Azeri people had little or no access to news
stories that were critical of the government. From 1920 until 1991, this
Eurasian country on the Caspian Sea just north of Iran and east of
Turkey, Georgia and Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. And in the
USSR, Ismayilova says, there was no real journalism.
“There was propaganda,” she said. “The journalism books in Soviet times
would say, Journalist should express his own opinion, which is based on
the state’s interest.”
Since 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence, journalism has not
improved much, Ismayilova said.
The government fully controls the broadcast media, she said, and the
handful of newspapers have low circulation and poor distribution. The
newspapers, she said, belong to opposition parties, and they spread
“So basically, there is no independent media in Azerbaijan,” Ismayilova
said. “Most of it is still propaganda, but it’s propaganda of the
Ilham Aliyev became president on October 15, 2003, two months before the
death of his predecessor Heydar Aliyev – the first time in the former
Soviet Union that top leadership passed from father to son.
Heydar Aliyev had been in a leadership role in Azerbaijan for decades.
He had been a high-level official in the Soviet KGB and had worked his
way up to powerful positions in the Soviet Politburo.
In 1969, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev appointed the senior Aliyev to
the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan
Communist Party, as an enforcer in a Soviet anti-corruption campaign.
Two decades later, Mikhail Gorbachev forced Heydar Aliyev to resign from
a high-level position in the Soviet Politburo because of allegations of
The elder Aliyev became the president of the Azerbaijan Republic in
1993, following the overthrow of Abulfaz Elchibey, its first president.
Aliyev won reelection in 1998, despite allegations of voter fraud and
Before his death in 2003, he had already put his son, Ilham, in a
position that would ensure he would succeed him. And just to make sure,
according to international observers, the Aliyev campaign strategies
included voter intimidation, an infusion of government resources, the
banning of local election observers and numerous irregularities in the
counting and tabulation of the votes.
Ilham Aliyev garnered 76.84 percent of the votes. He won a second term
in 2008 with 87 percent of the vote, thanks in part to the opposition
parties boycotting the election.
Silencing the Independent Voices
The following year (2009), was when Ismayilov’s newly honed digging
skills helped the Washington Post produce the kind of investigative
reporting that could jeopardize the power base built by the Aliyevs.
However, in a one-two punch that same year, the administration countered
by orchestrating a constitutional referendum that abolished term limits
for the president and inflicted severe restrictions on freedom of the
“We had BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,”
Ismayilova said, “but they all were banned on local frequencies in 2009.
The government of Azerbaijan doesn’t want its citizens to listen to this
news, because they were not able to control the content.”
Down, but not out, the foreign broadcasters turned more to the Internet
to reach the people of Azerbaijan, although much of the population had
no online access.
The daughters played a prominent role in a
again in June 2011, when Ismayilova proved that they were the main
shareholders of Azerfon, then Azerbaijan’s only provider of 3G mobile
phone services. A few years earlier, everyone had believed what the
government had announced — that Azerfon belonged to the German firm
Siemens A.G. and a couple of British firms.
“The government was lying about ownership of this company,” Ismayilova
said. “It turned out it’s not German Siemens — it’s the president’s
In early 2011, Ismayilova was digging through documents involving the
privatization of energy companies when she discovered that one of the
corporations was involved in a controversial construction contract the
president referred to as a “patriotic project.”
“It was building the highest flagpole in the world,” Ismayilova said.
“The Azerbaijani flag would be on it.”
But it turned out to be a short-lived glory.
“It was the tallest flagpole in the world for six months only,” she
said. “Then Tajikistan built a taller one — another stupid country that
wastes money on these kinds of things.”
Ismayilova says she discussed the project on her radio program, and
later she would learn from WikiLeaks documents that the country’s leader
was not happy with her.
“President Aliyev named me an enemy of the state for making fun of this
project on the air,” she said.
Ismayilova Infuriates the Azerbaijani Elite
She says she was still investigating the story on March 7, 2011, when
she received what clearly was meant to be a blackmail letter. She had no
doubt that it came from someone in the Azeri government.
“I received this package which contained a note saying, ‘You whore.
Behave or you will be defamed.’”
It included photographs that Ismayilova could tell were still images
that came from a video camera.
“It was hidden camera footage from my bedroom where me and my boyfriend
were engaged in sexual relations,” she said.
This had happened to other journalists, she said. One was a man who had
been having sex outside his marriage. That video showed up on the
primetime news of a station she says the president’s cousin was running.
Another video was of a reporter from the same newspaper caught on hidden
camera masturbating in his hotel room. She says one of the journalists
quit his job and disappeared. The other resigned from his job with an
opposition newspaper, she said, and now only writes about literature.
“I knew that this is how they want to stop me,” Ismayilova said.
When she thought about it, she says she realized that neither of those
other reporters had fought back when someone had threatened them. If
they had, she said, this might not have happened to her.
“I decided that it’s probably my responsibility to make sure that it
will not happen to others.”
She ignored the advice of colleagues who told her not to do her radio
show that afternoon.
“I ran my show and I’m sure they were listening to me that day,” she
said. “Those who were blackmailing me.”
Next, she posted a public statement on Facebook under the headline:
“This is how I answer the blackmailers.”
“I said I’m not going to stop any of my investigations and I said I’m
not going to shut up. I’m not ashamed of anything in my life, I’m not
ashamed of anything I’ve been doing, and if they think that they shamed
me — and that will stop me — they’re wrong.”
She says she filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, but it
didn’t stop the blackmailers from posting the video of her and her
boyfriend on a website that the blackmailers had created to look like it
belonged to an opposition party.
To her astonishment and relief, Ismayilova says the blackmail attempt
was a failure — instead of people condemning her, they rallied behind
“In a country where honor killings are still taking place, in a country
where women are not entitled to have sex before marriage, in a country
where this kind of behavior, like having a boyfriend, having an
apartment and living by yourself, is considered as going against
traditions,” she said, “I received full support from society.”
She says it didn’t surprise her that the prosecutor’s office said it was
never able to identify who had put the secret video cameras in her
“I had no doubts about who did it — who ordered it —but I wanted to know
how did it happen.”
Investigating – and Solving – Her Own Case
Ismayilova says she was able to figure out the camera angle and quickly
discovered phone wires where the camera in her bedroom had been. She
followed the wires to the living room and also to the bathroom.
“That was a shock,” she said. “And the week after, I couldn’t go to the
bathroom. I had this feeling that somebody is watching.”
She followed the wires from inside the apartment to a telephone box
outside that belonged to the state-run telephone company. She demanded
that the prosecutor’s office call whoever installed the line so that
person could explain the purpose of the phone line.
“They didn’t do it,” she said, “so I called one myself. I just called to
the telephone company to send a serviceman.”
She says that the man who arrived looked at it and said he remembered
installing it. He recalled bringing the line to the outside of the
apartment back in July of 2011 because the client needed another phone
line — at least that’s what his work order had led him to believe.
“There was someone in my apartment who asked him to leave an extra 15
meters of wire, but not to enter the apartment because someone else will
install it further.”
Ismayilova says she asked the prosecutors to document what the installer
had told her, but still nothing has come of the investigation.
In the meantime, she continued working on the investigative stories she
had been pursuing when the blackmail attempt occurred.
She had teamed up with her former student, Nushabe Fatullayeva, who had
been doing some curious digging of her own.
They struck gold: On May 2, 2012, the two journalists documented a paper
trail that proved that a lucrative contract to mine government gold had
gone to a company in the United Kingdom — a company that was actually
owned by a Panama corporation. Ismayilova and Fatullayeva showed that
Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva were the secret
Six days later, Ismayilova found even more family financial ties. This
time, it involved the building of a US$134 million concert venue called
the Crystal Hall to host and showcase the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest
That same year, Azerbaijan’s National Assembly passed legislation that
required a court order to find out who owns what in Azerbaijan, and,
just to be safe, the law grants lifelong criminal immunity to all
ex-Presidents and ex-First Ladies.
The new laws only apply to companies in Azerbaijan, so Ismayilova and
OCCRP colleagues Pavla Holcova and Jaromir Hason dug through property
records in the Aliyevs’ favorite travel destination, the Czech Republic.
In October of 2011, the team reported that Azerbaijani officials,
including members of the Aliyev ruling family, had formed corporations
in Prague, purchased land, and built hotels and villas in luxurious
places such as the famous spa city of Karlovy Vary.
In that case, presidential daughter Arzu Aliyeva’s name showed up on
as did the president’s father-in-law, Arif Pashayev. He’s the wealthy
patriarch of what’s considered to be Azerbaijan’s richest and most
influential family. Pasha Holdings is connected to numerous hefty
government contracts in several major industries.
By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 2013, the
government was cracking down on journalists as well as any activists who
dared to speak out publicly. Authorities even jailed neutral election
monitors. Aliyev received 85 percent of the vote and breezed into his
Amnesty International criticized the Aliyev government for what it
called “election irregularities.” The watchdog group Transparency
International listed Azerbaijan as having one of the most corrupt
governments in Europe.
Ismayilova broke another corruption story in late June 2014, when she
wrote about media mogul Sona Veliyeva, who is married to Ali Hasanov, an
influential government official — an official with power to make policy
regarding freedom of speech, political liberties and the media.
Quite often, Ismayilova wrote, President Aliyev would make decrees that
prevented outside networks or productions from airing video inside
Azerbaijan. To fill the video vacuum, Hasanov would dole out contracts
to local producers, including the companies his own wife owned. In all,
Ismayilova connected a dozen such media companies to Hasanov’s wife.
Less than a month later, Ismayilova followed up on her earlier story
about the president’s daughters owning shares in one of the mobile phone
companies. She proved that Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva were working their way
toward a near monopoly of the telecom industry by acquiring a big piece
of the other major cell phone carrier in Azerbaijan.
The story promised even more details to follow. Before she could provide
them, authorities arrested Ismayilova on Dec.5, 2014. She’s been in
But jailing the reporter won’t stop the reporting, said OCCRP’s
Sullivan. Khadija was working on many stories when they arrested her,
and journalists from four continents are picking up where she left off.
“They’ve been terrorizing journalists for too long, including one of our
own,” said Sullivan. “They may have arrested Khadija, but we’ve gotten
twenty to take her place. And by the time we’re done it could be more
than one hundred international journalists who will continue her work.”