When I first met Khadija Ismayilova in Prague in 2009, she was the Baku bureau chief for RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq. She was helping the Balkan Service investigate a story about Bosnian workers whose passports had been confiscated in Azerbaijan. She seemed like someone determined enough to chase a criminal to the ends of the earth. I was impressed with her energy, her knowledge, and her passion for investigative journalism. Khadija has been in prison for over three months now on politically motivated charges. For someone who was a leading investigative reporter, running from one project to another, easily switching from the role of moderator of a Facebook discussion to training young journalists to be investigative reporters in authoritarian countries, for Khadija, the three months of exile from her profession must feel like three years. The only ones who have had any contact with her over last three months are her lawyers. Among those is Yalchin Imanov, who recently spoke with me by phone.
RFE/RL: When was the last time you saw Khadija?
Yalchin Imanov: In the last week of February. I met with her at the detention facility. We spoke in detail about the charges she is facing, and had a detailed conversation about the case.
RFE/RL: What was your impression--is the injustice making her stronger, or is she losing hope?
Imanov: Khadija was originally arrested on the charge of “incitement to suicide.” On February 13, four additional charges were brought against her, most of which are accusations of serious crimes. [Tax evasion and “illegal entrepreneurship” are among the charges.] However, based on my personal observations, there are no changes in her behavior and attitude. She remains in good spirits, if not stronger than before.
As a lawyer I can confirm that the most recent charges once again demonstrated the illegality of the case brought against Khadija.
Last week there was a hearing related to a completely different case against Khadija. In her last statement she said that “these charges brought against us [journalists] are an insult to our intellect.”
RFE/RL: Can you tell us about the conditions in the prison where she is being held?
Imanov: Khadija is held at Baku Detention Facility. This facility itself was built according to European penitentiary standards. She has no serious problems with the conditions.
It is not the conditions in which she is held, but the way she is treated that is more problematic. March 5 was exactly three months since her arrest, and during these three months she has not been allowed to see her family even once. This is a serious violation of our own laws, but also the international conventions signed by Azerbaijan. Take for instance her correspondence with her lawyers--that too is under very strict surveillance. And this gets in the way of building a defense, because everything is under strict control.
RFE/RL: Is Khadija alone in her cell?
Imanov: She is not alone. There were initially five others in her cell. Some of them have been transported to another prison, and there are currently four altogether including Khadija.
RFE/RL: According to Azerbaijani law, what kind of sentence can she expect if convicted?
Imanov: There are five different charges against her, one of which she has been found guilty of and fined 2,500 manats ($3,180). Of these five charges, the gravest is embezzlement, and if found guilty she faces eight to twelve years in prison.
RFE/RL: Is she allowed to use her computer or phone?
Imanov: Khadija is not allowed to use her computer. That right doesn’t even exist according to our laws, unfortunately. She is only allowed to speak on the phone for 15 minutes twice per week.
RFE/RL: Why has she been denied visits with her family?
Imanov: She has only met with her lawyers in the past three months. There have been written and verbal requests for permission to meet with family members at the detention facility, but unfortunately none of these requests have been answered, or any reasons given for the rejection. According to Azerbaijani law, the head of the detention facility decides on this matter. So far, he hasn’t explained the reasons for denying visits with her family members. We are forced to consider taking such treatment to the court as well.
RFE/RL: What is the next step? When is Khadija’s next scheduled court appearance?
Imanov: The investigation is still ongoing. Actually, one of our concerns is that this investigation is taking such a long time. Khadija’s pre-trial detention has been extended to May 24. So we don’t know when the next hearing will be. Only the prosecutor’s office knows.
We have appealed to the court regarding her arrest. We have also finalized the documents for an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the legitimacy of her initial arrest.
RFE/RL: How many journalists are currently in jail in Azerbaijan?
Imanov: At the moment there are more than 10 people in jail for their journalistic activities. Some of them are bloggers charged with serious crimes and facing lengthy sentences. There were 9 imprisoned journalists in Azerbaijan in 2014, but in 2015, Seymur Hezi, an opposition journalist, was sentenced. The authorities claim these individuals have been arrested for some criminal activities, dismissing the fact that these people are in jail because of their work as journalists.
**In her most recent message sent to Prague through one of her lawyers, Khadija has asked her colleagues to carry on with their work, reminding us how important it is “to create a society in which telling the truth does not require courage."