Azerbaijan: Court ‘Rushes Towards Khadija Verdict’ as She Wins Human Rights Award

As Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova stood trial in Baku today, she was simultaneously announced a winner of a prestigious activism prize in New York.

Khadija IsmayilovaIsmayilova, an investigative reporter for OCCRP and Azadliq Radio (the Azerbaijani branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), is on trial for charges including embezzlement, tax evasion and inciting a former colleague to commit suicide – charges human rights groups say are politically motivated.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the journalist said today she believed that a relentless schedule of daily hearings signalled that the court was rushing towards a verdict.

In a further blow to her defence team, the judge announced penalties against her lawyers this morning after they failed to appear at the hearing.

According to Ismayilova, the court had plenty of warning that they would be unable to attend.

"They clearly stated yesterday, they could not come today," Ismayilova was reported as saying.

Although Ismayilova’s mother Elmira and representatives from the US, British and German embassies were able to enter the courtroom today, other supporters were once again left outside.

Camil Hasanli, leader of opposition bloc the National Council, was not allowed into court.

He told Radio Azadliq the courtroom was “filled with people who have no relationship to the defendant, leaving no space for friends, colleagues, journalists and international representatives”.

As in past hearings, representatives from the independent media were barred from the courtroom.

Meanwhile, in New York, Human Rights Watch named Ismayilova one of four winners of the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, a prize celebrating those who risk their lives to advance human rights.

“The Alison Des Forges Award honors people who work courageously and selflessly to defend human rights, often in dangerous situations and at great personal sacrifice,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

“Human Rights Watch honors Khadija Ismayilova for her extraordinary courage as a journalist and human rights activist in the face of an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.”

Prior to her arrest in December 2014, Ismayilova reported extensively on corruption in the highest echelons of the Azerbaijani government.

She believes her work is the real reason behind her legal troubles, claiming at a hearing on July 24 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev “imprisoned me to hinder my journalistic activity”.

OCCRP has continued Ismayilova’s work exposing corruption in Aliyev’s regime through an investigative journalism series called the Khadija Project.

Most recently, OCCRP reporters documented the President’s daughter’s ownership of an opulent vacation home in an exclusive Moscow suburb.

Azerbaijan has a poor freedom-of-speech record.

Human rights groups say there are at least 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Yesterday, journalists and friends of Rasim Aliyev – the journalist who died on Sunday after being severely beaten in Baku – held a moment of silence outside the courtroom where Ismayilova is standing trial.

According to her mother, Ismayilova was in good spirits in court today. The trial will resume tomorrow.