Two days before her 40th birthday, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison on May 25. Questions persist about the Azerbaijani government’s motivation for the release, and whether it portends a loosening of restrictions on civil liberties at home and improved relations with the United States and European Union.
International critics and Ismayilova herself, an internationally celebrated freelance journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the anti-corruption watchdog OCCRP, had maintained that her imprisonment was politically motivated, retribution for her investigations into shady business practices by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
In a country like Azerbaijan, where the judiciary does not have a reputation for independence, the Azerbaijani Supreme Court’s ruling to free Ismayilova is widely seen as coming at the behest, or at least with the blessing of, the government. On appeal, the high court suspended the journalist’s seven-and-a-half-year sentence on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement, and placed her on three-and-a- half-year probation for alleged illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
She is barred from leaving Azerbaijan for five years and must report monthly to a local police station, defense lawyer Fariz Namazly told reporters. She also has been blocked from holding senior civil service positions or sitting in local government for two years.
Smiling broadly upon her release, Ismayilova, who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, told journalists and supporters gathered outside the prison that she would file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, and “fight until proven not guilty on all charges.”
“My arrest was an injustice because I was arrested for crimes that no one had committed,” she said. “It was only for political reasons. It was a part of oppressive actions against human rights activists, journalists and NGO leaders.”
Ismayilova’s December 2014 detention came after she scrutinized business dealings of members of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family. By sharing her work with colleagues before her detention, though, much of that investigative work continued elsewhere.
“The government was thinking they would be able to stop the criticism by arresting me,” she stated. “I’m grateful to my journalist colleagues for continuing the unfinished investigations. After my arrest there was more investigative reporting about Azerbaijan.”
The Azerbaijani government has denied any political motivation for Ismayilova’s arrest or sentencing.
Azerbaijani officials have not yet issued any public statements concerning Ismayilova’s release. The top afternoon story on some government-run or pro-government news agencies was that a foreign business publication had named President Aliyev the World’s Person of the Year.
In a Facebook post, however, Emin Milli, a rights activist and editor of the independent Meydan TV, expressed the hope that “her release means that the Azerbaijani government is beginning to realize the importance of a free and independent civil society.”
Similarly, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks tweeted that Ismayilova “must now be able 2 continue her work w/o impediments.”
Others remain guarded about the significance of Ismayilova’s release. What the government has begun to realize, no doubt, is the need for international friends in high places, some contend.
On June 17-19, Azerbaijan will host in Baku a Formula One sports-car race; like the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and the 2015 European Games, the auto race is a presidential pet project.
In connection with that high-profile event, Sports for Rights, a coalition of international and Azerbaijani activists, is aiming to highlight Azerbaijan’s human rights problems. “We hope that the authorities will understand that having political prisoners is destroying the image of Azerbaijan ahead of these events,” commented Rasul Jafarov, the campaign’s founder, in an earlier interview with EurasiaNet.org. Rights activist Jafarov himself was released from prison in late March.
The deputy chair of the Azerbaijani parliament’s Human Rights Committee scoffed at the notion that the Formula One race has any connection with “politics.”
“Formula One,” underlined Yevda Abramov, a member of President Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, “is a sports event. It is not their responsibility to talk about human rights, prisoners and so on.”
“Athletes are required to use the power of their muscles, not their minds,” he elaborated to EurasiaNet.org. “Diplomats, philosophers, heads of governments are [the ones] busy with politics.”
First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, a target of Ismayilova’s investigations, recently proposed a bill in parliament to release 3,500 people from prison and 6,500 from trial in honor of Azerbaijan’s May 28 Republic Day. A mass prison release would have a geopolitical objective, asserted Turgut Gambar, a youth activist whose organization, N!DA, has seen various members arrested. “The main reason is that the Azerbaijani government is trying to improve relations with the West amid falling oil prices and an economic crisis in the country and releasing political prisoners is one of the preconditions for that,” Gambar said.
Given the oil prices, along with a weak domestic currency, authorities are starting to struggle to find the cash to keep Azerbaijan’s ambitious energy and infrastructure projects afloat. The economic downturn is already jeopardizing political support for the government, as protests earlier this year demonstrated.
Ismayilova’s release, along with other potential steps to improve relations with the West, could make it easier for Baku to make deals with international financial institutions. Reuters, for example, reported on May 25 that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is discussing with Azerbaijan financing for the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, a strategic gas-supply project for the European Union. The EU has been a vocal critic of Azerbaijan’s rights record. The Bank could itself issue as much as 500 million euros (about $557.5 million) for the project, as well as set up a syndicated bank loan for 1 billon euros (over $1.1 billion).
Azerbaijan earlier denied petitioning the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for $4 billion in assistance.
So far, representatives of neither the US government, the largest stakeholder in both organizations, nor the EU have commented on Ismayilova’s release.
Nothing suggests that the Sports for Rights campaign to highlight alleged rights violations in Azerbaijan will end with Ismayilova’s release. Rights activists are quick to point out that Azerbaijan is still holding lots of political prisoners, including civil-rights activist Ilgar Mammadov, journalist Seymur Hezi, blogger Ilkin Rustemzade, and youth activists Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov.
Police on May 25 detained another N!DA activist, Amid Suleymanov, along with photographer Elnur Mukhtar, the Turan news agency reported. Both of them were sentenced to 10 days in administrative detention.
Whatever the government’s reasons, Ismayilova’s elderly mother, Elmira, is relieved her daughter has been released. “I want her to get home as soon as she can so we can hug and kiss,” she told journalists outside the Supreme Court, expressing thanks to those who continued her daughter’s work and tried to secure her release.
“I want to kiss you all,” she added.
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.