The crackdown is the first application of new media-law provisions that allow courts to shut down news companies if they are found guilty of such transgressions twice in the space of one year.
Critics charge that claims of defamation long have become synonymous with government criticism in Azerbaijan, which international rights-watchdogs rank among countries with the least amount of press freedom.
Prosecutors, for now, have delivered a warning to eight-plus news outlets (Mia.az, Cumhuriyyət, Qaynarinfo, Gündəminfo, Criminal.az, Strateq.az, İstiqlal.az, JAM.az “and others” ), but warned that next time they might not spare the rod.
The press-freedom organization Reporters without Bordersearlier described the amendments, signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on November 2, as fresh evidence of continued governmental harassment of independent media in Azerbaijan.
Google, Bing, Yahoo, all move aside. In a first for the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan is working on its own web-search service. Officials in the tightly controlled energy-exporter say that both national security and commercial considerations prompted the idea.
Under the guidance of the Ministry of Communications, the government body that oversaw the launch of the world’s first Azerbaijani satellite, Azerbaijani coders have already developed a web crawler and are now working on a software application, Trend news agency reported on September 23.
A government-run technology developer, Dilmanc, said that the national search engine will bring more information security to Azerbaijan. The ministry has not elaborated about perceived threats, but some rights activists likely would surmise that government critics are among the ministry’s main concerns.
The government, however, already has a reputation for pressing for netizen loyalty. Democracy-watchdog Freedom House reports that online activists and bloggers have faced growing harassment over the past few years.
On the other hand, Dilmanc’s director, Abulfat Fatulayev, claims the national search engine offers attractive money-making opportunities -- always a consideration amidst low oil prices and an economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbons.
Azerbaijan has moved to end a major parliamentary dialogue with the European Union in retaliation for EU criticism of its rights record. The tit-for-tat between Brussels and Baku again pits the push for democratization against the desire for Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas.
Aside from the September 14 vote to suspend the country’s participation in Euronest, a parliamentary forum of the European Union and its eastern neighbors, Azerbaijani legislators also called for a broader revision of Baku’s cooperation with Brussels through the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program.
Azerbaijan already had told a delegation from the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, not to bother to visit Baku as had been planned.
The diplomatic brownout began with the European Parliament’s September 10 resolution that admonished Azerbaijan for “unprecedented repression against civil society” and for jailing domestic critics of the ruling elite; most recently, investigative freelance journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The resolution called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Ismayilova and scores of jailed rights activists and other critics.
Azerbaijani lawmakers were having none of that. “They malign Azerbaijan, try to harm the image of our country and isolate it,” they said in the passed resolution.
Azerbaijan plans to take French public television channel France 2 to court for an investigative program that called the Azerbaijani government a “dictatorship” and its leader, President Ilham Aliyev, a “despot.”
"We wondered if, during lunch with the dictator from the Caucasus, one was able to speak of oil and human rights without anyone around the table choking," the voiceover explained.
Nationally broadcast TV programs that question Azerbaijan’s rights record do not arrive at an auspicious time for the country. After hosting the European Games this July and agreeing to take on other mega-sports events, it now is considering whether or not to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The deadline is September 15.
Arguably, Cash Investigation's nearly two-hour-long report would do little to enhance any application Baku chooses to submit. Hinging on a 2014 trip to Baku by French President François Hollande, the story includes footage of police crackdowns on protesters and interviews with recently sentenced human-rights advocate Leyla Yunus and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.*
Following an earlier theme, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that the upbraiding by US, British and EU officials, and international human rights groups is nothing but meddling in a sovereign country’s home affairs.
"We categorically condemn and deem unacceptable interference in the trial of Khadija Ismayilova, the attempts to politicize the court decision and also reactions in the form of political statements to what in essense is a purely a matter of law," Report.az quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Hikmet Hajiyev as saying.
The US State Department had said it was "deeply troubled" by the seven-plus-year-long jail sentence handed down to Ismayilova, a freelance investigative journalist who has exposed various questionable business schemes tied to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family and political circles.
"This case is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press," the State Department said in a statement, which called for the corruption-busting journalist's release.
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.
Whatever else it might wish, the Azerbaijani court hearing the controversial case against jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova apparently does not wish that she has the last word. As Ismayilova lambasted the court on August 31 for a bumbling trial and the government for corruption, Judge Ramella Allahverdiyeva cut short her final statement before delaying sentencing until September 1.
In her comments, Ismayilova, 39, once again dismissed the criminal charges against her as “funny.” She faces a potential nine years in prison for alleged incitement to suicide, tax evasion, abuse of power, embezzlement, and “illegal business” — charges that most rights activists and Ismayilova herself see as retribution for investigative work that targeted the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
"Illegal business is one [of] my favorite charges," reads an English translation of her statement posted on RFE/RL. "Do you actually know what illegal business means? Illegal business is when the president, prime minister, or a parliament member engages in personal businesses even though they are not supposed to do so. Together with my colleagues, I was very surprised to see our president’s name as the founder of a number of companies registered in the Virgin Islands.”
As Ismayilova, following along these same lines, rebutted the charges against her, prosecutors objected to the statement, claiming it was not related to the case. As is her wont, Judge Allahverdiyeva, who also has been a target of the defendant’s criticism, upheld the objection and the court adjourned before Ismayilova had finished speaking.
Ever starting and stopping, the trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on a range of criminal charges has again come to a halt — this time, until August 31.
At a short, August 26 session, Ismayilova’s lawyer, Fariz Namazli, alleging a disregard of previous defense documents, motioned for the court to reexamine the evidence against his client. The court had rejected materials that demonstrated that all the accusations against Khadija Ismayil are absurd,” he said, using the Azeri version of Ismayilova’s last name.
Ismayilova, facing a possible nine years in prison, requested a week to prepare her own final statement. Following a brief break, the judge announced the trial would resume on Monday, August 31.
"They are doing what [Azerbaijani President] Ilham [Aliyev] told them to do,” drily commented Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira, after the session, reported a live feed from RFE/RL, for whom Ismayilova worked as a freelance reporter.
Once again, journalists from non-government-associated news organizations and civil society representatives were denied access to the court proceedings.
The highly controversial trial of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova adjourned for five days on August 21 after the prosecution demanded a nine-year jail term for the internationally acclaimed freelance reporter on various criminal charges. Media-freedom advocates around the world view the trial as an attempt by Azerbaijan's government to silence yet another prominent critical voice.
Known for her exposés of corruption and nepotism in the tightly run, hydrocarbon-rich Caucasus country, Ismayilova, 39, was initially arrested last year on suspicion of inciting an individual at RFE/RL's now shuttered Baku office to attempt suicide. The alleged victim retracted his accusations, but Ismayilova, RFE/RL's former bureau chief, was kept in pretrial detention with new charges of alleged embezzlement and tax evasion popping up.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service reported Ismayilova's mother, Elmira, as saying that her daughter laughed when she learned of the proposed prison term.
With access to the court tightly restricted, details of the proceedings are few. Ismayilova, though, asserted in court that the prosecution had presented inadequate proof for their allegations, and that the judge, supposedly eager to go on vacation, was rushing the case without regard for Ismayilova's rights.
International human rights watchdogs see a bitter irony in that Ismayilova, who reported extensively about abuse of power in Azerbaijan, particularly within the family and administration of President Ilham Aliyev, is now charged with abuse of power herself.
Ismayilova, who works as a freelance journalist for the US-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service, faces up to 19 years in prison on charges of alleged abuse of power, tax evasion, embezzlement and attempting to cause a suicide.
Immediate details about her July 24 hearing were few. Access to the courtroom was strictly limited, with even the defendant’s sister denied entry, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service reported. Some diplomats were allowed into the room, but only a few journalists. Judge Ramella Allahverdiyeva rejected a petition to allow audio and video recordings of the proceedings, News.az reported.
Police had chained off the street leading to the courthouse, though supporters gathered outside the courtroom to clap and chant Ismayilova’s name, video footage posted by Turan news agency showed.
At the trial, Ismayilova, reported to be in “high spirits,” stated that she had been arrested only to stop her investigations into the “illegal business” operations of President Ilham Aliyev and his family, according to RFE/RL’s live, Azeri-language updates.