An Azeri court today (1 September) sentenced a prominent journalist known for exposing corruption among the ruling elite to seven-and-a-half years in jail, in a case critics say is political.
Human rights group Amnesty International says Khadija Ismayilova, who works for the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is a prisoner of conscience and that charges against her were trumped up to stop her corruption investigations.
A Baku court found Ismayilova guilty of embezzlement, illegal business activities, tax evasion and abuse of her position.
State prosecutors were seeking nine years in jail for Ismayilova, 39, who has investigated government corruption, business dealings of the president and his family and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan
“We disagree with the verdict and plan to appeal it. The sentencing is not justified and has been pre-ordered,” Ismayilova defense lawyer Fariz Khamazly told Reuters.
Rights advocates accuse veteran Azeri President Ilham Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges Baku denies.
The Azerbaijani foreign ministry made a statement, rsponding to the several critical Western reactions over the issue (see background).
Despite the criticism, the West has courted the former Soviet republic as an alternative to Russia as a supplier of oil and gas.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its European organisation, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), condemned the sentencing of Ismayilova.
“We strongly condemn the outrageous sentence handed down to Khadija Ismayilova,” said IFJ General Secretary Beth Costa. “It is clear that this is a reprisal against the journalist for her professional commitment to investigative journalism. This baseless lengthy jail term serves the sole purpose of intimidating all critical voices in Azerbaijan.”
Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, the EFJ President, added, “This is a shocking verdict which should be overturned immediately. Azerbaijan should be ashamed of its treatment of journalists who are being prosecuted for carrying out their duties. We demand the immediate release of Ismayilova.”
The IFJ and the EFJ had previously advocated to release the journalist and they together submitted her case to the Council of Europe’s digital platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety for journalists.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has responded to the critical statements of the US Department of State, the British minister of state for Europe, the European Union and some international organizations over the court verdict on Khadija Ismayilova’s case.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hikmat Hajiyev said that the foreign ministry “strongly condemns and considers unacceptable any interference in the court verdict on Khadija Ismayilova’s case and attempts to alleviate it and distort its essence as well as political statements on this purely judicial issue”.
“Regrettably, there was a tendentious approach like intervention in and pressure on the investigation, and attempts to politicize it even at the time the charges against Khadija Ismayilova were still under investigation. These attempts are considered direct intervention in Azerbaijan’s sovereignty,” the spokesperson noted.
“It has been stated many times by the Foreign Ministry that the independence of judiciary and the rule of law are fully ensured in Azerbaijan. Court verdicts must be met with respect. Under the law, every citizen has the right to appeal against a court verdict”, Hajiyev completed.