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In Blow to Independent Media, Azerbaijan Sentences Ismayilova to 7 1/2 Years

Khadija Ismayilova, in transit to court for a preliminary hearing, 26 December 2014.
Khadija Ismayilova, in transit to court for a preliminary hearing, 26 December 2014.

WASHINGTON -- A Baku court today sentenced investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova to seven and a half years in prison on charges widely believed to be retribution for her reporting on corruption linked to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and members of his family.

Ismayilova was convicted on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power. She was barred from holding public office for three years and fined the equivalent of 300USD for court-related expenses. She was acquitted of the charge of incitement to suicide.​

“Khadija’s case is an example of politics, not law. There was no merit, ever, to any of the charges against her and there was no due process during her trial.” said Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL’s editor in chief. “The authorities simply decided to silence her at any price.”

In her final testimony in court on August 31, a defiant Ismayilova delivered her own blistering indictment of Azerbaijan’s justice system, mocking the prosecution for failing to put together a convincing case and schooling the judge on the charges against her. She called the trial a “poor quality scam” and said, “I am more successful in this business of finding proof than is the notorious prosecutor's staff.”

During the trial, not a single witness testified against Ismayilova in court.

In a public statement condemning the sentence, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, called on the Azeri government “to stop targeting journalists.” The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists stated that the sentence would have “gravely serious” consequences for Azeri journalists. Speaking as a member of the Sport for Rights Coalition of media advocacy and human rights groups, the PEN American Center's Karin Deutsch Karlekar called on the Azeri government to stop “this unprecedented witch-hunt against journalists.”

Ismayilova was arrested on December 5, 2014 for inciting an individual to attempt suicide Her accuser sought to withdraw the allegation, testifying in a pre-trial hearing in July that he had "defamed" her under pressure from law enforcement agencies, but the court rejected a defense motion to drop the charge.​

Additional charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power, all purportedly related to her work for RFE/RL, were brought against her in February, 2015. Ismayilova ridiculed the charges in her closing statement for their arbitrariness and lack of proof. They were previously refuted by RFE/RL in a point-by-point statement sent to Azerbaijan’s general prosecutor and the judge presiding in the trial.

One day before Ismayilova’s arrest, Rahmiz Mehtiyev, senior adviser to President Aliyev, published a 60-page tirade accusing RFE/RL journalists of treason. Three weeks later, on December 26, Azeri state agents raided and sealed RFE/RL’s Baku bureau, seizing documents, corporate stamps, and equipment. They then interrogated more than 20 members of its staff. The bureau is closed and, according to the prosecutor’s office, remains under investigation in connection with RFE/RL’s status as a “foreign agent.”

RFE/RL continues to gather news and report inside Azerbaijan for its website, Several of its employees have fled the country in fear and others work under duress, subject to interrogations, frozen bank accounts, and threats.