Surge in Response over Jailing of Azerbaijani Journalist


International protests are set this week over the arrest of award-winning investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova amid widespread fears that her two-month detention marks the crossing of a “red line” in human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

Protests against the detention of Ismayilova, who wrote anti-corruption investigations for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, have been planned in Georgia and Romania; one was held in Moldova on Saturday and one in the US on Monday.

Ismayilova began a two-month pretrial detention on Friday Dec. 5 over bizarre allegations that she drove a former colleague to attempt suicide. She spoke by phone this morning to RFE/RL in Baku to say, “The charges against me are fabricated […] Despite all of this, I remain strong.”

She urged supporters and fellow journalists to continue their work in the face of intimidation. “It is very important that one continues to work and do what you did before. I am expecting more investigations from my fellow journalists, more initiatives from the human rights defenders. The work should go on,” she said.

Family members say she has been refused food parcels sent by friends, despite her dietary restrictions due to a stomach operation. Authorities at the detention center will reportedly allow parcels only once per week.

Ismayilova’s arrest has drawn swift and strong criticism worldwide and has been reported in more than 50 countries. The US Helsinki Committee has issued a statement of concern, as have Amnesty International, Freedom House and the Index on Censorship. Journalist organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Global Investigative Journalism Network have added their voices to the condemnation of what has widely been called a politically motivated arrest. A Facebook campaign to "Free Khadija" has also been established.

Ismayilova joins a growing list of journalists and human rights activists serving time in jails for protesting what they say is a corrupt and repressive government.

Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch, said observers in Azerbaijan had been expressing concern about a growing crackdown for months.

“But Ismayilova’s arrest should be the last straw. International partners need to make clear to Azerbaijan that there will be no more business as usual as long as critics remain behind bars,” he said.

Meanwhile, President Aliyev’s spokesman in Baku, Azer Gasimov, blamed the outcry on an “anti-Azerbaijani campaign” by the US Department of State and “forces jealous of our country”.

Gasimov, quoted in local media, said: “If you pay attention you can see that the State Department, which instantly comments on any small incident in Azerbaijan, gives no reaction to open and flagrant violation of human rights in several [other] countries."

One protest against Ismayilova’s arrest took place Monday evening in Washington DC and was organized by Amanda Rivkin, who lived for a year in Azerbaijan on a Fulbright scholarship. She said that at the time she lived in Baku, she felt unable to speak out about repression because of fear of reprisal. However, she told OCCRP, “I am speaking up because I am in a country now where I am free to do so without fear.”

She said she thought President Ilham Aliyev craved the respectability of the West without providing its people with the basic amenities that one would expect from a developed country, such as consistent electricity and gas, and indoor plumbing outside main urban areas.

“So, since the Aliyevs see themselves as ‘first worldly’, I thought a First World action might make them uncomfortable,” she said. A dozen activists gathered in front of the Embassy of Azerbaijan, attended by police and media.

Emin Milli, managing director of Meydan TV – which was accused last week in a document released by the Presidential Administration of receiving US$ 300,000 from US and EU sources to work against the Azerbaijani government – told OCCRP that Ismayilova’s arrest showed a red line had been crossed and that he was now afraid for his staff.

“It's not just about our journalists. We have just two or three independent media platforms in Azerbaijan. Everyone in the country who works for them is now under threat of being arrested, being called pro-Armenian, being called CIA spies, and becoming criminals. This is the atmosphere that we're living in now,” said Milli.

Human Rights Watch has noted an increase in reports from Azerbaijan of repression and abuses. It says up to 50 independent reporters and bloggers as well as political activists have been jailed in the past two-and-a-half years.

Milli put this down to a change in political climate that has occurred very quickly.

“Even for us, people who have been working in the media for many years, it is shocking,” he said.

Although family sources confirmed problems delivering food parcels to Ismayilova, her lawyer Elton Guliyev said yesterday that he had visited her in prison where her conditions were “good” and she was in high spirits.

NGOs have been under government pressure in recent months. In May, the Baku branch of Oxfam was placed under criminal investigation and, in September, IREX – a research and training agency – was forced to pull out of the country. In August, they hadposted on their website to refute allegations that they were “pro-Armenian”. Their assets were reportedly then frozen and their office raided.

Most recently the Azerbaijan branch of the US Peace Corps was last week forced to wind up their activities and leave. US charge d’affaires for Azerbaijan, Derek Hogan, said he was disappointed that authorities decided that there was now “no need” for the presence of the humanitarian organization, which has spent 11 years in the country.