Champion for Azerbaijani Civil Society Goes On Trial
By Tamara Grigoryeva
Eurasia Program Officer, Emergency Assistance Program
On June 24, the last day of the European Games in Baku, the president of the European Olympic Committees, Pat Hickey, waved to the crowd and declared, “The future is bright for Azerbaijan.”
A month later, on July 24, Azerbaijani authorities are set to begin the trial of the country’s most prominent journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who has led a number of complicated investigations into government corruption, including around the European Games.
Arrested on December 5, 2014, Ismayilova was initially charged with “causing a person to attempt suicide,” but additional charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power were soon lodged against her. In the face of international criticism, Azerbaijani officials and progovernment media often try to present Ismayilova as a criminal, as well as a traitor and a Western spy.
Those who know better describe her as an exceptional investigative journalist, and one of the mainstays of Azerbaijani civil society.
Media Trainer and Mentor
In addition to her own work as a reporter, Ismayilova has helped to train many young journalists. Charles Rice, a former Azerbaijan country director for a U.S.-based media development organization, collaborated with her in 2007 and 2008. “She is probably the best media trainer I worked with, and I have worked with many. She left a mark on every single journalist we have worked with,” he said. “She didn’t preach or lecture, but always knew how to work a journalist to buy into the story.”
One her former students observed that “many journalists don’t even want to share their information sources, let alone research and other work techniques. I asked her once if she was worried she was preparing serious competition for herself, but she looked at me as if this was some nonsense and said that one of the instruments to build an active civil society is through having professional journalists who can inspire the people. And this was her goal.”
Poet and Translator
Ismayilova has written poetry since childhood, and published her first work, an antiwar poem, in an Azerbaijani magazine at the age of 10. According to her mother, Elmira, she continues to write and recite poems, including those by her favorite Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet.
Ismayilova’s friend and colleague Aynur Imranova notes that she is also a talented translator. She translated Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner into Azerbaijani in 2011. Imranova said, “The artistic style of language, the ideas and fluency of the language, all of these created an absolutely unique translation of this beautiful story and overall important book for the Azerbaijani readers.”
Ismayilova hasn’t stopped translating even in prison. Imranova said she is currently working on Iranian American writer Sahar Delijani’s Children of the Jacaranda Tree.
Women’s Rights Defender
In 2012 Ismayilova received a letter in the mail demanding that she stop her journalistic work. The note included pictures of her in intimate situations. She went public with the threat against her, and in response a video similar to the pictures, which had been made without her knowledge or consent, was also released. The Azerbaijani government has used such methods of intimidation against activists before, but it probably didn’t anticipate Ismayilova’s defiant reaction.
A friend and fellow reporter emphasized the courage this required “in a traditional patriarchic society like the one in Azerbaijan,” where such public “shaming” can end careers and even lives. By withstanding and fighting back against the sustained harassment, Ismayilova was able to shift the focus from the usual discriminatory discourse to the fact that the government had illegally taped her life, and she gained popular support. “She fought her own fight, but made things easier for all women. After that the government never managed to use intimate footage against activists and get an impact,” the friend added.
Advocate for Political Prisoners
Although she is now a political prisoner herself, Ismayilova has assisted other human rights defenders in compiling a list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and she has helped to raise financial support for the detainees and their families.
“Khadija became an informal leader and coordinator of the campaign for my liberation while I was in jail,” said Emin Milli, a former political prisoner and director of Meydan TV. (Emin is pictured below chanting Khadija's name with members of PEN America.)
According to freelance journalist Arzu Geybulla (pictured below), Ismayilova “wanted to make sure the families of imprisoned critics of Aliyev’s regime were able to get by, because she knew they were the ones who suffered first hand.”
“Now that she’s in jail, all this work has been stalled, and political prisoners are often in a difficult situation,” said journalist Natig Adilov of Azerbaijan Saati TV, whose brother Murad is imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
As Ismayilova’s trial approaches, friends and family are growing more concerned.
“She is so strong. And she is clean like a glass. But I worry a lot about her,” her mother said.
Charles Rice expressed fears that Ismayilova’s health would suffer in detention. “She doesn’t belong in prison, and should be released immediately,” he added.
A former student voiced similar concerns: “Last week we saw Leyla [Yunus] and were shocked at how she changed in a year. I’m worried to see Khadija changed like that. She is not a criminal, she is one of the most important civil society members in Azerbaijan, and without her there will be no one to inspire us and to lead us.”
In the week after Ismayilova’s trial begins, trials will also open for human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus, and Rasul Jafarov. There are currently more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
Azerbaijan’s friendly diplomatic façade cannot hide its growing domestic repression, and should not deter U.S. demands for the freedom of jailed journalists like Khadija Ismayilova.
Azerbaijan has suffered the greatest decline in democratic governance among Eurasian countries over the past decade.
At least eight journalists and three human rights defenders are serving their terms in the prisons of Azerbaijan, according to a recent Human Rights Watch briefing. That should tell you a lot about the country’s crucially limited freedom of expression.