Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney’s April 26 remarks to the BBC have hit a raw nerve in Azerbaijan, the ex-Soviet petrocracy where her client, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, is kept prisoner.
After Clooney described the political reasons for Ismayilova’s arrests, the Azerbaijani government apparently did what it always does when pressed on its human rights record -- claimed a global Armenian conspiracy.
No matter if Clooney’s case at the European Court for Human Rights involves an Azerbaijani journalist’s struggle against the Azerbaijan state. Azerbaijan’s state propaganda will find an Armenian connection even if there is none.
“Turns out that Armenia indeed has a weapon that we could not even dream of… the ‘deadly weapon’ that Armenia is using against Azerbaijan is the quite well-known, failure-of-a-lawyer Amal Clooney, née Alamuddin,” Day.az sniped.
The smear campaign, waged loyally by Azerbaijan's predominantly pro-government mainstream media, comes shortly after Azerbaijan and longtime archenemy Armenia fought a brief, so-called four-day war earlier this month. The seemingly endless feud between the two neighbors began after a bloody war in the late 1980s and early 1990s over separatist Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the eviction of the enclave’s entire ethnic Azeri population.
For that reason, in Baku's thinking, Clooney's past role as a legal advocate for the Armenian government before the European Court of Human Rights make her highly suspect. Her support, and that of husband George Clooney, for recognition of Ottoman Turkey's slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide only add to the suspicions. Turkey ranks as Azerbaijan's closest ally.
When Clooney said she was taking up Ismayilova’s case, Azerbaijani media claimed that the British lawyer was of Armenian descent. Clooney, who scoffed at the charges, is, in fact, of Lebanese extraction, but Lebanon houses a large Armenian Diaspora. So, for Baku, it all comes together.
“The Armenian diaspora must have some sort of trick prepared to use that good-for-nothing lawyer,” opined Rizvan Huseynov, a researcher with Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Science.
Azerbaijan’s pro-government media seemed particularly incensed with Clooney’s recent attempt to rally support for Ismayilova’s case in Washington. Clooney told the BBC that she believes international pressure can help free the journalist, who has been serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence since late 2015 for alleged abuse of power, tax evasion, illegal business activity and embezzlement.
“We know that diplomatic pressure can work on the [Azerbaijani] government because what we had happened in the last month,” Clooney said, referring to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s pardon of internationally recognized political prisoners ahead of a visit to Washington in late March.
In fact, Aliyev releases prisoners each year before Novruz, the traditional Zorastrian New Year celebrated in Azerbaijan, but the comment hit its mark.
Researcher Huseynov wrote in the pro-Aliyev News.az website that the Armenians paid Clooney to go to Washington and set the White House and Capitol Hill against Azerbaijan.
How far Azerbaijan’s pro-government hacks will go with this theme of an international Armenian conspiracy remains to be seen, but crossover PR tactics from the Karabakh fight should be expected.
Veteran presidential advisor Ali Hasanov, a first responder for international PR crises on all fronts, advised on April 27, as if with finger in the air, that “[I]t’s necessary to act so that journalists working at the BBC, CNN, and Azerbaijan’s media approached issues from unified principles, from a single code."
And that code is plain, he continued: “Azerbaijan supports the spread of the idea of humanism, of pluralistic media."