Hopes for a fair trial for Khadija Ismayilova, the investigative reporter recently imprisoned in Azerbaijan, have been further dashed by the surprise-disbarment of one of her lawyers.
The Azerbaijan Bar Association ruled on December 10 that attorney Khalid Bagirov allegedly had breached professional ethics when he questioned the fairness of a court decision in the case against another of his clients, opposition-leader Ilgar Mammadov, jailed in 2013 for supposedly inciting a riot.
Ismayilova, who worked for RFE/RL and, also, in the past, for EurasiaNet.org, is still represented by Elton Guliyev.
Bagirov, who has been disbarred before, sees the decision as an attempt by the government to silence him. “I accept the decision of the bar association as a prize for the work I’ve done,” he told RFE/RL.
Aside from Ismayilova, Mammadov and other critics of the government, Bagirov also was defending jailed analyst Arif Yunus, the husband of Leyla Yunus, an outspoken, veteran human-rights defender. Both were imprisoned earlier this year on charges of alleged high treason and tax evasion. “I am worried for Arif Yunus. I was his only lawyer,” Bagirov was quoted by the Kavkazsky Uzel news site as saying.
The December-5 detention of Ismayilova, a frequent target of government rage for her exposes of financial funny business linked to the presidential family and senior officials, has set off predictions of death of whatever little real journalism was going on in Azerbaijan. Ismayilova, already the target of a sex-video smear-campaign never resolved by the government, now stands accused of supposedly driving a former colleague to try to commit suicide, a charge that carries a three-to-seven-year prison-sentence.
Such arrests and charges have sparked condemnation from the full range of Western democracy groups and governments, and international organizations, but have resulted in few real measures to discourage what critics term a spiral toward autocracy in Azerbaijan.
Baku, meanwhile, maintains that it does not imprison individuals for their opinions.
In a December-11 interview with the pro-government APA news agency, presidential spokesperson Azer Gasimov, casting an eye on recent unrest over alleged police-abuses in Missouri and New York, advised the US State Department “to focus its attention on apparent and flagrant violation of human rights and freedoms, democratic principles in its country.”
The government insists that Azerbaijani journalists, to whom it has offered various perks, including housing, operate freely. Yet the arrest of Ismayilova, who called on fellow journalists to continue her reporting, seems to be taking its toll.
An outspoken Berlin-based Azerbaijani news service, Meydan TV, on December 10 shut down its office in Baku, linking the move to Ismayilova’s imprisonment and harassment by authorities.
“We cannot guarantee [the] physical safety of our staff in [a] semi-totalitarian state,” the outlet’s founder, Emin Milli, wrote EurasiaNet.org. He declined to elaborate further.
Against that backdrop, for many, the fight over Ismayilova, and scores of other detainees, holds broad significance.
“The question is if she is allowed to remain in jail, “ RFE/RL’s Aliyev said of Ismayilova, “if the authorities succeed in acting this way with impunity, then, you know, we believe that Azerbaijan is lost.”