OSCE: Azerbaijan Must Stop Harassing Khadija Ismayilova

Published: 24 December 2018

Khadija IsmayilovaKhadija Ismayilova

By Aida Cerkez

The Organization for Security and Cooperation, OSCE, expressed on Saturday serious concern over Azerbaijan’s continuous harassment of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and called for the intimidations to end.

A day before, the Baku Economic and Administrative Court ordered Ismayilova to pay 23,000 Euro (US$26,240) for alleged failure to pay taxes while she worked as the local bureau chief for Radio Free Europe, RFE.

Ismayilova asserts that in addition to her not having been responsible for RFE finances, the RFE had an agreement with Azerbaijan on tax exemption.

The court’s decision is the latest in a long list of actions taken by the government in Baku against Ismayilova since she began publishing investigations that exposed corruption in her country and the wealth of the ruling family.

Since 2013, the reporter has been detained several times, accused of treason, smeared by government-friendly media, accused of tax evasion and theft and eventually arrested and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison based on fabricated charges of embezzlement, illegal business, and abuse of power.

“It is deeply worrying that Khadija Ismayilova continues to face difficulties by state institutions, which hinder her professional activity as a journalist,” said OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir.

“In recent years, she has had to endure numerous cases of harassment and intimidation for her critical reporting,” he said. “I call to end these practices, as they are detrimental to freedom of expression in the country.”

Following international pressure and claims that Ismayilova’s trial was politically motivated, the court replaced in 2016 her prison term with a suspended sentence but issued a two-year ban on professional activity, a travel ban, and other restrictions.

The ban prevented Ismayilova from traveling abroad to receive international awards such as the Right Livelihood Award in recognition of her work as a human rights defender. Authorities froze her bank account last year and she claims she is being followed by police in plain clothes.

Her colleagues across the OCCRP network, however, continued her work while she was in prison and after her release.

Reacting to the latest verdict, OCCRP Chief Editor Drew Sullivan tweeted that Ismayilova “hasn’t signed a single financial document and doesn’t even work for the company any more. The whole case against RFE was fabricated in the first place.” 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan ranks among the top countries for jailing members of the media and has regularly blocked independent news websites.

Azerbaijani human rights defenders say that more than 150 people remaine in prison on politically motivated charges, and the number of such cases continues to grow.