Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent investigative journalist whose reporting has often exposed corruption and human rights violations, was arrested in Azerbaijan on December 5 in what is being seen as the government’s latest move to mute criticism in the country.
A court in the capital Baku ordered the jailing on pending charges of driving a fellow reporter to attempt suicide, a crime that in Azerbaijan is punished with up to seven years in prison. In mid-October the Baku Prosecutor’s Office had issued a travel ban for the journalist. Ismayilova is a reporter at Radio Azadlyg, the Azerbaijan service of US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The arrest has sparked international condemnation from global rights groups and protests have been staged outside Azerbaijan’s representations abroad. Nenad Pejic, Radio Free Europe’s editor in chief, said: “The arrest and detention of Khadija Ismayilova is the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.”
“For months Azerbaijan’s international partners have expressed concern about the crackdown,” wrote Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus’ researcher at Human Rights watch. “But Ismayilova’s arrest should be the last straw. International partners need to make clear to Azerbaijan that there will be no more business as usual as long as critics remain behind bars.”
Human rights organizations report that many activists and independent journalists in this energy-rich Caspian Sea nation have been jailed since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, including two rights activists in August.
The day before Ismayilova’s arrest, the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiyev issued a lengthy memo labelling her “a traitor” who was devising “anti-Azerbaijan programs” that are the equivalent of working for foreign security forces. The document also criticised the modern-day “colonialism” of the US. Azerbaijan has been a military ally of the US and contributed troops to missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The US State Department did not comment directly on the Ismayilova case, but spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Friday that Washington is “deeply troubled by restrictions on civil society activities, including on journalists in Azerbaijan".
Government officials deny political motives behind the arrest.
“Ismayilova has been arrested by a judgment on suspicion in a concrete criminal action,” reported AzerTag citing Ali Hasanov, Head of the Public and Political Affairs Department at the Azerbaijani President`s Administration, the state news agency AzerTag reported. “Statements in some local and foreign circles are therefore biased, groundless and appear to be a process directed from the same centre. These politicised statements seem to be also a pressure on the law enforcement bodies to conduct a fair objective investigation of the said case according to the Azerbaijani legislature,” Asanov said.
Ismayilova has been targeted for her reporting before. In 2012, after a series of articles on the ruling family's role in lucrative construction projects, she was warned in a letter that her reputation could be compromised, and later a video of her having sex with her boyfriend was published online.
Analysts think that Ismayilova’s case illustrates “Azerbaijan’s two-faced policy towards the US".
In an op-ed published in Foreign Policy on December 6, Altay Goyushov, history professor at Baku State University and currently Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, argues that the Azerbaijani government “has been bankrolling Western lobbyists and think tanks in order to convince policymakers in the US and Europe that it is a credible and democratic partner".
However, back home, the government’s actions tell a different story.
“During the past few years, the regime in Baku has systematically destroyed independent institutions such as the media, political parties and, most recently, non-government organisations — all under the guise of safeguarding against Western influence.”
Goyushov recognizes the strategic role Azerbaijan plays for the West – a Muslim secular country with key energy resources - but he also warns that destroying local democratic movements “paves the way for extremist religious groups to fill the vacuum. Azerbaijan’s authoritarian rulers, whose fragile legitimacy fuels its subversion of independent voices, are apparently interested in having Islamic radicals as their principal opponents. By portraying pro-democracy activists as subversives and traitors who serve the interests of Western imperialists, authoritarian regimes in fact repeat and strengthen the discourse of ISIS and other radical groups.”
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