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.
But, as with many other things, the Azerbaijani government has its rules about what exactly constitutes the right breakfast.
During their time in Baku, the European sports community and those individuals staying at certain hotels may find it hard to avoid having a kookoo egg, a traditional omelet, every morning.
Before the Games, officials “trademarked” a so-called “Azerbaijan Breakfast” and requested all major hotels to start serving it. Earlier this week, tourism officials presented the rights-protected breakfast to managers of high-end hotels in Baku and said they’ve came up with an unspecified quality-inspection system.
The morning meal includes a cheese platter, jam, honey, tea and, of course, the kookoo eggs. And it is free for visiting athletes and sports officials.
But some foreign visitors, including a sports-reporter for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, are not going to be there to try it.* The authorities denied The Guardian accreditation for the Games after it published a critical piece on preparations for the event.
The South-Caucasus representative for Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia, was en route to Tbilisi on March 31 after being kept at the Baku airport for over 30 hours for unclear reasons.
Border officials on March 30 had barred Gogia from entering Azerbaijan and took away his passport, the New-York-City-based international rights group said.
In a brief phone-conversation on the evening of March 31, Gogia, a Georgian national, told EurasiaNet.org that he was now boarding a flight back to Tbilisi, his residence. Azerbaijani officials had given him no clear reason for the confiscation of his passport or holding him in the airport, he said.
Gogia left for Baku on March 30 to attend the controversial March-31 trials of imprisoned human-rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and rights-activist Rasul Jafarov, said HRW Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber.
“Authorities in Azerbaijan have not provided any explanation to us,” Denber commented to EurasiaNet.org
Human Rights Watch and Gogia personally have been frequent critics of what democracy watchdogs calls Azerbaijan’s authoritarian slide. Increasingly, journalists and rights activists are being jailed in Azerbaijan on what many observers deem spurious charges designed to squash criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's government.
In a tweet, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s former human-rights commissioner, on March 31 termed the actions toward Gogia a “sad sign of worsening clamp down.”
EurasiaNet.org could not reach the Azerbaijani foreign ministry for comment.
A daughter of jailed Azerbaijani dissidents, Dinara Yunus, is among the growing choir of Azerbaijan’s critics who are using the upcoming “European Olympics” to draw attention to reported repressions in the Caspian-Sea country.
“My parents dedicated 30 years of their lives to human rights. Now they are in different cells in different prisons because they dared to speak out,” Yunus says in a recent YouTube video. Released by the UK human rights group Amnesty International, the video mixes her monologue with footage of the large-scale preparations in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, for the European Games this June.
“Mr. President [Ilham Aliyev], can you tell me why my mother is in prison after she was critical of the upcoming European games?” Yunus asks in the tape.
Dinara’s mother, prominent human-rights activist Leyla Yunus, is controversially jailed on charges that include tax evasion and spying for the enemy state of Armenia. International democracy-watchdogs scoff at these charges, and those against her husband Arif Yunus and many other activists, as politically motivated.
Charging that Azerbaijan now has as much freedom of speech as can fit inside a prison cell, international human rights groups and emigrant Azerbaijani activists are banking on the June 12-28 European Games to put an international spotlight on what they describe as the government’s authoritarian excesses.
Prominent Azerbaijani media-rights activist Emin Huseynov has been living in the Swiss embassy in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, since last August, the Swiss government has acknowledged.
Huseynov, a government-critic who previously had been detained and badly beaten by police, had fled to the embassy to escape possible arrest.
The embassy granted Huseynov shelter on humanitarian grounds, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs wrote the Swiss television program Rundschau in a letter the program made public on February 11. The department confirmed that the Swiss government is in talks with Azerbaijan “to find a solution” for Huseynov’s situation.
After reports surfaced last August from Azerbaijan that he had been arrested, 35-year-old Huseynov, who ran the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a frequent source for EurasiaNet.org stories, was known to be in hiding at an undisclosed location.
Having been denied exit from Azerbaijan, Huseynov already had seen the telltale signs of a pending arrest — his bank account had been frozen, his office raided by police.
Foreign Policy’s Michael Weiss, drawing on an exclusive by "sources close to Huseynov," reported that the activist, whose wife is an American, had first approached the US embassy for help, but allegedly had been refused by Chargé d’Affaires Dereck Hogan. (The US mission to the OSCE did call on Azerbaijan to stop its crackdown on “peaceful activists,” including Huseynov.) The State Department did not respond to requests for follow-up comment, the magazine reported.
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.
Prison is increasingly the place to find the most prominent of Azerbaijan’s journalists, activists and freethinkers. The last public glimpse of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova came on December 5, when a police-car carried her off to prison as she waved to friends and supporters, who ran alongside chanting “Khadija!”
Her apartment has since been searched, her Facebook page already deactivated (not long before her sentence became public) and she remains in pre-trial detention in Kyurdakhany prison, outside the capital, Baku, for the next two months.
Ismayilova, an RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, stands accused of allegedly pushing a former colleague to attempt to commit suicide. The charge follows a series of exposes by Ismayilova into corruption among members of the presidential family and other senior officials.
The arrest has sparked a fusillade of international accusations against Azerbaijan again trying to silence critical media voices. Rallies to protest Ismayilova's detention already have been planned for this week outside of Azerbaijan's embassies in Washington and Tbilisi.
Baku, as usual, has brushed off the criticism as “baseless and biased,” and insists that vague certain circles seek to sully Azerbaijan’s good name. “Azerbaijan has never prosecuted any of its citizens as well as any mass media representative over freedom of speech, and they never suffered from pressure by any official authority,” claimed President Ilham Aliyev’s spokesperson, Azer Gasimov, the pro-government APA reported on Monday.