Baku’s Court for Grave Crimes found 39-year-old Ismayilova guilty of tax evasion, illegal business activity, embezzlement and abuse of power — the types of alleged crimes which, ironically, she herself investigated in covering senior government officials and the family of President Ilham Aliyev.
"It is not a coincidence that these charges were brought against me. After all, I have talked and written in detail about these very same crimes myself," Ismayilova said in her final statement, as published by Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, one of her employers.
To many, Ismayilova's story brings to mind “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest” — a lone battle against an autocratic, ossified system and an inspiration for civil society kept in a straitjacket by an entrenched, ruling élite. Rights activists and many journalists alike see her conviction on spurious criminal charges as retribution for her exposes of corruption within President Ilham Aliyev’s family and circle.
Before prison, Ismayilova, who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, faced an ugly character assassination campaign that culminated in a video of her intimate life being posted on the Internet. A pro-forma police investigation has led nowhere.
But even in detention, the awards for her investigative work have continued. On July 29, the National Press Club awarded her with its highest press-freedom prize on July 29. She also has received Human Rights Watch's 2015 prize for extraordinary activism.*
Amnesty International described her arrest back last February as "another blatant attempt to gag free media in Azerbaijan" and since then the Azerbaijani authorities faced an avalanche of criticism from all major human rights advocacy groups.
But the court and government alike have their own views. The message is clear — no homegrown defiance of President Aliyev's authority will be tolerated. Nor will the government consider Western exhortations to stop harassment of government critics.
Azerbaijan has used its oil and gas wealth to glamorize its capital city, Baku, and attract international sports and music events. But accusations persist that behind the glitzy veneer is essentially a Soviet-style regime, where free-thinking is suppressed, while media and billboards glorify the achievements of national leaders.
The guilty verdict for Ismayilova was preceded by arrests and convictions of scores of government activists; most recently, respected human rights advocate Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus. International human rights groups describe these arrests as a purge of democracy activists and dissidents. Azerbaijani authorities last year ejected the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where Ismayilova worked.
In its annual assessment of the global state of democracy, the Washington, DC-based Freedom House ranked Azerbaijan among the world's least free countries. The legislative and judicial branches exercise no independence from the executive to speak of, limits for presidential term have been eliminated and prisons are full of political prisoners, it claimed.
While the US and European Union have chided Azerbaijan for such conduct, its energy wealth has provided, critics say, insulation. Baku has yet to see any real cost for such a rights record.
Ismayilova in her final statement on August 31 (cut short by the court) thanked embassy representatives for attending her trial, "even though the violations they saw in this court still will not prevent their ambassadors from shaking hands with a dictator and applauding corruption-infused projects.”
Ever defiant, she also said that incarceration won't prevent her from doing investigative work (about the penitentiary system) and from getting the word out.
"I am one of those people who knows how to turn a problem into an opportunity," she said. "I have always been this way. I will build homes from the stones thrown at me."