The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemned an Azerbaijan court’s decision sentencing investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova to seven-and-a-half years in prison on charges of criminal libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity and abuse of power.
Ismayilova, a contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) who has been behind bars since she wasdetained in December 2014, was also barred from holding public office for three years and ordered to pay an approximately €266 fine to cover legal expenses. Prosecutors in the case had requested a nine-year sentence.
The court acquitted Ismayilova of a charge of inciting an individual to attempt suicide, the charge on which she was initially detained, after the accuser withdrew his complaint.
“The nature of these proceedings and the overall lack of transparency raise serious doubts that Ms. Ismayilova was given a fair trial,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “Further, the circumstances surrounding her detention and the charges against her, coupled with an environment that has seen the imprisonment of a number of human rights defenders in recent years, strongly suggest that this was a politicised case that should never have been brought.
“We call on Azerbaijan’s government to immediately release Ms. Ismayilova and anyone else currently behind bars in connection with the exercise of their fundamental human rights.”
Ismayilova’s supporters say the accusations against her are spurious and they characterise the case as the latest in a long list that illustrates a broad crackdown on dissident voices in the oil-rich country. They claim that the charges against Ismayilova came in retribution for her lengthy career unveiling alleged corruption by government officials.
In 2015, Human Rights Watch honoured Ismayilova with its Alison Des Forges Award in recognition of her work as an investigative journalist “in the face of an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan”.
The journalist, in a final statement before the court yesterday, called the Azerbaijani government a “repression machine”. She maintained that the charges against her were fabricated to silence her investigative reporting on allegations implicating President Ilham Aliyev and his family in corruption.
The case has garnered broad international attention, drawing strong criticism for the proceedings’ lack of transparency. Observers have described how members of Ismayilova’s family, as well as journalists and supporters, have been barred from entering the courtroom since trial in the case started on Aug. 7. Similarly, only a limited number of representatives from foreign embassies have been allowed to be present during proceedings.
Supporters have also criticised what they say is a departure from recognised legal standards. They claim that Azerbaijani authorities intentionally rushed the trial and that Ismayilova was not allowed to exercise basic legal rights.