Khadija Ismayilova knew it was coming; in fact she was expecting the worst, perhaps even to be assassinated – a fate that has befallen several investigative journalists in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Two weeks ago, she was arrested in her hometown, Baku, by Azeri police and is now in two-month pretrial detention. Under the draconian Azeri justice system, if she is found guilty she faces a very long prison term.
Ismayilova is charged with causing a colleague to attempt suicide. The accusations have been widely condemned as a flagrant effort to silence her critical voice.
Her case is at the center of world attention focusing also on the tyrannical government of President Ilham Aliyev, its abuses of human rights and his corrupt family. Media organizations, individual journalists, human rights groups and governments of many countries are appealing to the Azeri government to drop the ridiculous charges and release her.
The Tel Aviv Journalists Association joined the protest and its chairman Rotem Avrutsky called upon the Baku authorities to release the brave reporter.
Ismayilova, who reports for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, (or Radio Azadliq, as it is known locally) has reported extensively on official corruption and the financial activities of family members of President Aliyev.
In the past she has been the target of vindictive actions by the government in connection with her reporting. She has suffered repeated attacks in official media, on-line smear tactics, and threats of physical harm. In March 2012, intimate footage obtained through surveillance equipment planted in her apartment by the local security services appeared on pro-government websites and was propagated in official media. The message accompanying the photos warned her to “behave or be shamed.”
In April that same year she was also the subject of an obscene video fabricated to portray her and posted online. Later she was accused of spying for the United States after meeting with US Senate staffers in Baku and was subsequently subject to a travel ban that prevented her from leaving Azerbaijan on opaque legal grounds. At the time, Ismayilova called the smear campaign against her “moral terror.”
Her arrest is a grim confirmation of what rights groups call a ruthless campaign of repression against Azerbaijan’s most independent and influential journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society activists. A growing number of them have been jailed for expressing their views and protesting against what they say is a corrupt and repressive government.
Drew Sullivan is Ismayilova’s editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a cross-border, international team of investigative journalists, and is coordinating the efforts to obtain her release under the “Free Khadija” campaign.
He told me by email that “Azerbaijan has systematically repressed the media and all opposition in the country. It is a model increasingly used throughout the region led by Russia. The government has called her a traitor, an Armenian, which they use as a slur, and a whore. It would be funny if this wasn’t the 21st century and a government that actually rules people.”
Despite her harsh treatment and bleak future, Ms. Ismayilova seems to be strong.
In a letter she managed to send from her cell to her friends and supporters she wrote: “Arrests and restrictions are part of our mission in telling the truth. My arrest proves one more time that it is important to make change happen. We need to build a new reality where truth will be a norm of life and telling the truth will not require courage.”
Meanwhile, President Aliyev’s spokesman in Baku, Azer Gasimov, blamed the outcry on an “anti-Azerbaijani campaign” by the US Department of State and “forces jealous of our country.” Quoted in local media, he said: “If you pay attention you can see that the State Department, which instantly comments on any small incident in Azerbaijan, gives no reaction to open and flagrant violation of human rights in several [other] countries.”
Azerbaijan, situated on the banks of the Caspian Sea, is a former Soviet Republic and a rich oil and gas producer. Since it declared independence in 1991 after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family. First the father and now his son. It is a moderate Muslim nation which has been trying to reach out to the West and turn its back on Russia.
Two additional major facts contribute to its security and foreign affairs orientation.
One was the war with neighboring Christian Armenia, which was supported by Russia and Iran. The war resulted in Azerbaijan losing the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The second factor is its troubling relations with another neighbor – Iran, One-third of Iranians are of Azeri origins, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
It is against this background that Azerbaijan has emerged in the last decade as an important strategic ally for Israel.
According to foreign reports, Azerbaijan has become a major market for Israeli military and security goods, which include drones and optical, electronic and intelligence equipment worth an estimated $1.5 billion in recent years. Azerbaijan is also Israel’s major supplier of oil. Cabinet ministers, senior government officials as well as intelligence and military personnel of both countries frequently visit each other, exchanging views information and gifts.
It has also been reported in foreign media that because of its proximity, Azerbaijan serves as a launch pad for Israeli intelligence gathering operations against Iran.
Yet recent events may indicate that the Aliyev government is having second thoughts about its foreign policy and may regret its pro-Western orientation.
Regardless, it is unlikely that the government of Israel, which has never been among those taking the lead to express concern about abuses of human rights, will comment about the case of Khadija Ismayilova.■ Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.