Could a Broom Prove Mightier Than the Pen in Azerbaijan?
Corruption-busting Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova is now facing possible jail time after rejecting a change in punishment for participating in an unsanctioned anti-government rally in Baku earlier this year. Insisting that Azerbaijanis have the right to assemble and express their views, Ismayilova had refused to pay the 400-manat (roughly $510) fine for taking part in the gathering. She was subsequently sentenced to sweep the main streets of Baku. Promising to do her best to clean the Azerbaijani capital of all kinds of garbage -- not least, corruption -- she came up with a motto for her community service -- Sweeping for Democracy.
Gradually, as many Facebook and Twitter users pledged to come join her in her sweeping job, what was meant to be a punishment began to look like a rally. And we all know how the Azerbaijani government feels about unofficial rallies.
The punishment was changed -- from sweeping outdoors to cleaning indoors, at a rehabilitation center for the disabled.
Ismayilova refused. She says she does not want to share the fate of youth activist Jamil Hajiyev, who was reportedly beaten at the site of his indoor community service. “They can do any kinds of provocations indoors,” she commented to EurasiaNet.org.
She is now facing three months in jail for refusing to work at the new location.
But jailing the prominent, international-award-winning journalist ahead of Azerbaijan's much-watched presidential election in October could prove another blow to the government's media reputation, already damaged by numerous complaints of roughshod treatment. (At a July 16 congressional hearing in Washington, Azerbaijani Ambassador to the US Elin Suleymanov objected to the criticism.) Ismayilova, who works for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service and also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, made international headlines last year, when a video depicting her in an intimate situation was posted online after she refused to stop investigating questionable business deals involving President Ilham Aliyev's family.The video, intended as a particularly egregious badge of shame in Azerbaijan's conservative culture, did not stop Ismayilova's work. Neither will prison, she says.