In unscheduled, snap proceedings today, the Baku City Nasimi District Court extended investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova's pre-trial detention for an additional two months, until May 24.
According to the Azerbaijani state prosecutor's office, the extension is necessitated by an investigation related to charges recently brought against RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service of operating as an illegal entity since 2008. Authorities appear to be using these accusations as the basis for charges of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power that were brought against Ismayilova on February 13.
Ismayilova was accompanied by a lawyer during the hearing and spoke for 30 minutes in her own defense, calling the charges "fabricated" and insisting "I have nothing to do with these charges." Her detention has been widely condemned as part of a systematic, campaign authorized at the most senior levels of government to intimidate and silence the country's independent activists and journalists.
RFE/RL editor in chief Nenad Pejic said, "The case against RFE/RL, and by extension the case against Khadija, has no basis in reality - the Azeris are making these things up as they go. We have memoranda from state agencies recognizing our broadcasting rights, tax documents, and years of approved Azeri state audits - everything required. All of these charges should be dropped and Khadija should be released immediately."
Ismayilova's lawyers have said that the false charges against RFE/RL enable Azeri courts to, in effect, launch a dragnet against virtually anyone engaged by the service during the last seven years on grounds of illegal business activity.
Ismayilova was originally detained on December 5, 2014 on charges of inciting a colleague to attempt suicide. Her pre-trial detention was extended for an additional two months on January 27, 2015. On February 23, 2015, in a sudden, closed-door trial, she was convicted of libel on charges--which she has repudiated--relating to a document on her Facebook page.
RFE/RL's Baku bureau was raided and sealed on Dec 26, 2014. Twenty-six journalists and staff members associated with the Service were interrogated after the raid by agents of the state’s "grave crimes investigations committee," in connection with a new law on so-called "foreign agents." The same law was invoked to force the National Democratic Institute, IREX, and other organizations supporting civil society development to suspend their local operations.
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs -- radio, Internet, television, and mobile -- reach influential audiences in 21 countries, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).