International Outcry at 7-Year Jail Sentence for Azerbaijan Journalist

khadijablackwhiteKhadija IsmayilovaInternational organizations and government officials have roundly condemned the jailing of Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who was sentenced today to seven years and six months in prison.

“This sentence strikes yet another blow to respect for human rights and adherence to democracy and the rule of law in Azerbaijan,” said Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.

“Khadija Ismayilova pays for her courageous work as investigative journalist in a country where critical voices are muzzled one after the other.”

Only a handful of diplomats and observers had been able to attend the trial, which began in late July.

Ismayilova, who wrote numerous hard-hitting stories on corruption in Azerbaijan, was convicted of embezzlement, tax evasion, running an illegal business, and abuse of power.

The journalist insists she is being imprisoned for her investigative work and that the charges lodged against her are fabricated, an assessment backed by civil society groups and media freedom organizations.

Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, Denis Krivosheev, said that the trial had relied on the aggressive application of draconian laws – an argument made by Ismayilova herself in her defiant final statement to the court Monday.

Said Krivosheev: “The government has stepped up its brutal crackdown on political activists, journalists, human rights defenders - indeed anyone who dares to publicly raise a critical voice.”

Meanwhile Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called the verdict unjust, saying it was a “clear signal that the authorities are continuing to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan.”

Adding his voice to the outcry was Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who called for the sentence to be overturned.

“The outrageous verdict against Khadija Ismayilova shows the Azerbaijani authorities’ willingness to subvert the law to exact revenge against critics,” he said.

Joining Roth was the United Kingdom’s Minister for Europe, David Lidington, who expressed deep concern at the ruling.

“We call on Azerbaijan to abide by its international commitments to respect the rule of law while taking concrete steps to improve their human rights record,” said Lidington.

Until her arrest on Dec. 5, 2014, Ismayilova hosted a popular program on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service and worked as a senior investigator for OCCRP.

Her journalism included major exposes of graft and improper business links of those in the close circle of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, including his family members.

In the summer of 2014, Ismayilova wrote about the Azerbaijani telecom industry, revealing the previously hidden involvement of President Aliyev’s daughters.

In response to her jailing, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) launched The Khadija Project to finish her work.

A network of reporters was quickly able to show that a company close to President 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 Telecom, the country’s largest mobile operator.

During Ismayilova’s incarceration, reporters have continued Ismayilova’s work, and additional stories are in the works.

The latest story, published today, details the First Family’s use of super-luxury yachts owned by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan.