Prison is increasingly the place to find the most prominent of Azerbaijan’s journalists, activists and freethinkers. The last public glimpse of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova came on December 5, when a police-car carried her off to prison as she waved to friends and supporters, who ran alongside chanting “Khadija!”
Her apartment has since been searched, her Facebook page already deactivated (not long before her sentence became public) and she remains in pre-trial detention in Kyurdakhany prison, outside the capital, Baku, for the next two months.
Ismayilova, an RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, stands accused of allegedly pushing a former colleague to attempt to commit suicide. The charge follows a series of exposes by Ismayilova into corruption among members of the presidential family and other senior officials.
The arrest has sparked a fusillade of international accusations against Azerbaijan again trying to silence critical media voices. Rallies to protest Ismayilova's detention already have been planned for this week outside of Azerbaijan's embassies in Washington and Tbilisi.
Baku, as usual, has brushed off the criticism as “baseless and biased,” and insists that vague certain circles seek to sully Azerbaijan’s good name. “Azerbaijan has never prosecuted any of its citizens as well as any mass media representative over freedom of speech, and they never suffered from pressure by any official authority,” claimed President Ilham Aliyev’s spokesperson, Azer Gasimov, the pro-government APA reported on Monday.
Responding to criticism from the US State Department, Gasimov said that instead of taking the time to comment on events in Azerbaijan, Washington is best advised to focus on “racial discrimination, police violence against peaceful demonstrators” and “police choking a person” in the US.
Writing for Foreign Policy, one Azerbaijani fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy argued this weekend that Ismayilova’s situation “serves as a perfect illustration of Azerbaijan’s two-faced policy towards the US.” Busy “bankrolling Western lobbyists and think tanks” in the West to convince audience that “it is a credible and democratic partner,” while chucking journalists like Ismayilova and other critics into jail at home.
Prosecutors’ case against Ismayilova rests on a complaint by her former colleague, Tural Mustafayev, who claims Ismayilova attempted to drive him to suicide. In an allegation that Ismayilova, her lawyers and employers consider absurd, Mustafayev alleges that she, out of jealousy, tried to block his career and threatened him on Facebook.
In comments to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Mustafayev couldn’t recall what exactly Ismayilova wrote on Facebook. “She did not use my name, but I understood that she means me,” he told the OCCRP.
Nonetheless, prosecutors, no doubt with an eye on a recent diatribe by Presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev, who accused Ismailyova of being part of a “fifth column,” believe they have a strong case.
But all major human rights groups from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe it is another flagrant case of muzzling free media, and called on governments to pressure Baku to reverse the further descent into authoritarianism.
“Ismayilova’s arrest should be the last straw,” said Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus researcher with Human Rights Watch. “International partners need to make clear to Azerbaijan that there will be no business as usual as long as critics remain behind closed doors,” he said in a statement.