The timing could not have been more ironic. Even as it praised freedom of speech to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the country’s first Azeri-language newspaper, Azerbaijan put its most celebrated investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, on trial for criminal charges deemed by critics an attempt to silence the press.
Ismayilova, who works as a freelance journalist for the US-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service, faces up to 19 years in prison on charges of alleged abuse of power, tax evasion, embezzlement and attempting to cause a suicide.
Immediate details about her July 24 hearing were few. Access to the courtroom was strictly limited, with even the defendant’s sister denied entry, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service reported. Some diplomats were allowed into the room, but only a few journalists. Judge Ramella Allahverdiyeva rejected a petition to allow audio and video recordings of the proceedings, News.az reported.
Police had chained off the street leading to the courthouse, though supporters gathered outside the courtroom to clap and chant Ismayilova’s name, video footage posted by Turan news agency showed.
At the trial, Ismayilova, reported to be in “high spirits,” stated that she had been arrested only to stop her investigations into the “illegal business” operations of President Ilham Aliyev and his family, according to RFE/RL’s live, Azeri-language updates.
She noted that the investigations have continued, despite her incarceration.
And so they have. Last month, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, with which Ismayilova cooperated, provided detailed coverage of a mansion in London and hotels in Baku owned by the Aliyev family.
Meanwhile, sponsorships at Azerbaijan's recently concluded European Games provided insight into the symbiosis that exists between other companies allegedly linked to the presidential family and official government events.
Charges were first brought against Ismayilova, who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, in December 2014, after the publication of a series of investigative scoops that targeted Azerbaijan's First Family. Her employer, RFE/RL, has since lost access to its bureau in Baku.
Initially imprisoned related to the suicide charges, Ismayilova has remained in jail despite the fact that the former co-worker who testified against her has since retracted his testimony. Additional charges were filed subsequently.
A second hearing date has been set for August 7, RFE/RL reported.
The trial, though, arguably, is not doing Azerbaijan any favors. Earlier this month, 15 US senators wrote President Aliyev to complain about “the diminishing space for both civil society and the freedom of press within Azerbaijan,” and express concern about Ismayilova’s arrest, among other media matters.
The New-York-City-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that “at least seven other journalists” also are behind bars in Azerbaijan. Like other rights orgaizations, it has urged their release.
Azerbaijani officials, however, clearly anticipated the criticism related to Ismayilova's trial and have been polishing their official media record all week.
In a lengthy, July 21 monologue, President Aliyev advised that “we need to introduce Azerbaijan to the world media space [sic] as a modern, growing, open, tolerant country.”
To mark the 140th anniversary of Azerbaijan's first Azeri-language newspaper, Akinchi, he has handed out various awards to journalists deemed deserving.
He also has turned his attention to matters domestic, calling for Azerbaijan Airlines to charge lower prices, and for greater" transparency” in the company's price-setting — an interesting appeal, given a previous investigation by RFE/RL, co-authored by Ismayilova, that indicated a connection between services for the airline and a holding company co-owned by one of his daughters, Arzu Aliyeva.
Anticipating knocks on the corruption front, the government also decided this week to release information about how it has responded to corruption-related crimes — in 68 percent of the cases, it has launched a criminal investigation, the pro-government APA news agency duly noted.
To sum it all up, on July 23, veteran presidential aide Ali Hasanov, whose wife, businesswoman Sona Veliyeva, has been targeted by Ismayilova’s investigations, emphasized that Azerbaijan "does not imagine itself without freedom of media" and wouldn't dream of returning to censorship.
Indeed the Azerbaijani government considers “taking proper care of media representatives” among its responsibilities, he claimed.
But for many domestic and international critics, Ismayilova’s prosecution appears to be one way the government goes about doing it.