The trial of Azerbaijan’s most famous journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, was set to begin on National Press Day, July 22. The irony was too much for President Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian regime and the start date was postponed at the last minute until today.
This concern for appearances was surprising because the authorities in this small Caucasian republic usually stop at nothing to crack down on press freedom and have done so in an unprecedented manner for the past year. Pluralism has been obliterated. The few remaining independent media outlets are fighting for survival as the regime orchestrates its economic asphyxiation. The jails are full of political prisoners who include 12 journalists and bloggers.
Putting Ismayilova in jail, where she has been awaiting trial for more than seven months, has been a continuation of this hard line policy. Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s leading investigative reporter, is known throughout the world for her coverage of high-level government corruption. The regime did everything possible to silence her, including blackmail, state media smear campaigns and a wave of lawsuits and prosecutions. But she continued to expose the presidential clique’s offshore companies one by one and to document its takeover of the most lucrative sectors of the economy.
The last time I saw her was in September 2014, when many of us urged her to remain abroad for a period of time. The leading human rights defenders had just been arrested and she was busily trying to fill the void – compiling a list of political prisoners, arranging legal aid, and organizing assistance for the families. Her own arrest was clearly imminent. She was perfectly aware of this, but nothing could persuade her to yield one inch of terrain. Azerbaijan was her country, she was just doing her job and she was not going to let the regime tell her what to do.
As soon as she returned to Azerbaijan, she was banned from leaving again. The head of the president’s office, Ramiz Mehdiyev, named her in an article published on December 4 that railed against foreign “destabilization attempts” and an Azerbaijani “fifth column.” She was arrested the next day on a charge of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide. Aware that the grounds for holding her were flimsy – and became even flimsier when the alleged victim retracted a few weeks later – the authorities quickly brought new charges.
So Ismayilova will instead be tried for alleged embezzlement, tax fraud, illegal business activities and abuse of authority in connection with an investigation into Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Baku bureau, which she ran until 2009 and which the authorities closed last December.
But no one is fooled by all these trumped-up charges. The authorities are trying an independent journalist who refuses to be silenced and whose commitment to human rights irritates those who violate them. After orchestrating an unprecedented crackdown while presiding the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the Aliyev regime is now demonstrating in the clearest possible manner that it thinks it enjoys complete impunity.
The lack of an international outcry so far suggests that it is right. Rich in oil and natural gas and strategically located between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan is much sought after as a partner. This is understandable, but does the Aliyev government have to be given a blank cheque? Four years after the Arab Spring, is it still possible to imagine that an ultra-repressive regime is the best defence against instability? Must we turn a blind eye to this regime’s human rights violations because of its “secular” nature? These arguments are nonetheless heard in many western foreign ministries.
Azerbaijan freely accepted its obligations as party to the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and many other treaties. These obligations include respect for freedom of information. There is no reason why Azerbaijan’s partners should yield to its blackmail, to its angry accusations of interference, arrogance and destabilization in response to the smallest allusion to its repressive methods.
This is not about regime change. It is merely about reminding the Azerbaijani authorities of their obligations. They cannot blame the rest of the world for the situation they have brought upon themselves. And at a time when they are trying to buy themselves an image that matches their international ambitions, it is perfectly natural to remind them of the rules of the game.
If the international community needs lessons in courage, it can find them in the letters that Ismayilova smuggles out of prison. “Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced (...) Be loud, and be public. The people of Azerbaijan need to know that their rights are supported.”
Johann Bihr, Head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk
(Photo: Radio Azadliq)