One day after sending internationally acclaimed journalist Khadija Ismayilova to prison on criminal charges, Baku on September 2 told the US and European Union to back off with the criticism.
Following an earlier theme, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that the upbraiding by US, British and EU officials, and international human rights groups is nothing but meddling in a sovereign country’s home affairs.
"We categorically condemn and deem unacceptable interference in the trial of Khadija Ismayilova, the attempts to politicize the court decision and also reactions in the form of political statements to what in essense is a purely a matter of law," Report.az quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Hikmet Hajiyev as saying.
The US State Department had said it was "deeply troubled" by the seven-plus-year-long jail sentence handed down to Ismayilova, a freelance investigative journalist who has exposed various questionable business schemes tied to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family and political circles.
"This case is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press," the State Department said in a statement, which called for the corruption-busting journalist's release.
Citing international monitors, the EU, for its part, raised the nagging issue of the "impartiality" of Azerbaijan's judicial system, and the grounds for the charges (attempt to incite suicide; embezzlement; abuse of power; illegal business) brought against the 39-year-old reporter.
International monitors' "access as well as access for national observers was, as in similar cases, irregular and arbitrary, despite regular requests," a statement read.
The United Kingdom's minister for Europe, David Lidington, was just as critical of the verdict and called on the Azerbaijani government to have respect for human rights. "The UK will take every opportunity to raise concerns over human rights in Azerbaijan," Lidington pledged.
Human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse Azerbaijan of jailing Ismayilova in retaliation for her reporting on corruption and unethical business dealings of the highest echelons of power in the tightly ruled ex-Soviet country. Activist groups say Ismayilova's was the latest in a series of convictions for critical journalists and prominent civil society figures.
Baku generally views such complaints as “anti-Azerbaijani,” and claims it is as democratic as a country can be. In the past, it has advised the US and EU to mind their own human rights records.
Some outside observers, though, believe that the pace of pressure against independent thinkers will not abate, now that Ismayilova is in jail.
The Berlin-based Meydan TV, which also has zeroed in on apparent official abuses of power, claimed on September 2 that prosecutors yesterday summoned one of its Baku-based freelancers, Sevinc Vaqifqizi, for questioning.
The station reported that investigators took an interest in Vaqifqizi’s coverage of an August 22 protest in the regional city of Mingachevir against the death of a local, Bakhruz Gadjiyev, in a police station. Vaqiqzi alleged that the unnamed investigator also questioned her about Meydan’s ownership and registration.
The prosecutor’s office has not yet commented.