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Personally Smeared for Uncovering Corruption in Azerbaijan

Threats, detention, and an intimate video designed to bring down Khadija Ismayilova

by Giorgi Gogia, senior researcher

Someone placed a hidden camera in Khadija Ismayilova’s bedroom. They recorded her, planning to blackmail her and force her to give up reporting. She is, after all, one of the few Azerbaijani journalists who still have the courage to do hard hitting investigative work. While threats from thugs convince other journalists to self-censor, Khadija has reported extensively on government corruption – all the way up to the family of the autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev, himself the son of the country’s former president and former KGB general.

I’ve known Khadija for five years and I call her my friend. I doubt it was a coincidence that the sexually explicit video of Khadija and her boyfriend surfaced soon after the American broadcaster CNBC aired a segment entitled “Filthy Rich.” It explored President Aliyev’s family’s Dubai real estate holdings – including nine homes, worth tens of millions of dollars, bought in 2009 by his pre-teen grandson. Khadija had consulted for the report.

That video of Khadija – posted by a fake news website that pretended to be connected with an opposition party – put her in physical danger. Azerbaijan is a conservative country, and honor killings still take place in some areas. Khadija is a charismatic and well-known journalist in her late-30s, but people could decide to come after her.

This was in March 2012. The smear campaign continued, as Khadija refused to back down and continued reporting. Only last week, a newspaper associated with the ruling party ran an article titled, “Khadija’s Armenian Mother Should Die.” The false claims that Khadija’s family is Armenian are dangerous – in the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, being labeled Armenian is like an accusation of treason and spying for the enemy.

The article also mentioned the Baku neighborhood where Khadija’s mother lives.

I worry about Khadija. Sometimes, I’ve even said to her, “Maybe you should not go out at night,” or, “Maybe you should be more careful about where you live and where you go.” Many others have probably suggested the same.

She had a straight answer for me. “That’s what they want,” she said. “They want to restrict me and not let me lead my normal life, and I’m not going to give them that pleasure.”

I keep in close touch with Azerbaijan’s small but vibrant youth civil society. The country is swimming in wealth from oil and natural gas, but its human rights record has been poor for years. The government has clamped down on rights since 2011, when a protest movement emerged in the wake of the uprisings in the Arab world, mainly to protest Azerbaijan’s corruption.

Since then, as my new report, Tightening the Screws, shows, the state has really moved in to stop opposition political activity and social media activism. The authorities are going after youth activists, a few high-profile political activists, and others, to use them as examples to scare their followers. Arrests have been arbitrary and prisoners mistreated.

I grew up and live in Georgia, a southern Caucasus state neighboring Azerbaijan, and I’ve researched human rights in this area since 2000, 10 of those years for Human Rights Watch. My work focuses on Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. It’s a volatile region, where at times activists work under tremendous stress and at great risk.

It was Georgia’s corrupt, bribe-driven process to gain admission to a university in the mid-1990s that made injustice get under my skin. It was the first time that kind of dirty dealing affected me. 

In Georgia, you had to do more than pass university entrance exams to get into a top university. You had to pay money to get in, which I couldn’t afford and wouldn’t accept.

Although I passed all the necessary exams, I ended up spending hours and hours arguing with examiners, proving that I deserved top grades although I had refused to pay for them.

I succeeded, but the experience was eye-opening. Looking back – I was only 16 at the time – I don’t know how I found the strength to force my way through this process. It changed forever the way I thought about injustice.

Georgia’s university admission system has been reformed since then, but many other human rights problems persist. They include tepid government responses to religious intolerance and homophobic violence, police abuse, and poor conditions in detention.

Because of my years as a human rights researcher, I now personally know many activists. Their enthusiasm, courage and dedication to affect change is admirable and contagious. Many could have had an easier life – a normal life – which is what most of us would do to survive. In late July, the government of Azerbaijan gifted more than 150 flats to journalists in an apparent attempt to buy their loyalty.

Khadija was not one of them. Instead, she, along with dozens of activists, is harassed or picked up by corrupt authorities on trumped up charges before being tossed into a blatantly unfair legal system.

This is an increasing trend in Azerbaijan, as my report shows. Police claim to find drugs on people who probably never used them. If thugs beat up an activist and the victim reports it, police charge the activist with hooliganism – with attacking their assailants. If an activist is detained, their rights are often further undermined when they can’t choose their own lawyer. There are televised confessions gathered under suspicious circumstances. You don’t even need to stretch your imagination to know that the charges are politically motivated and intended to scare them into silence.

Khadija was never imprisoned for long, but others have been. A pair of bloggers, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, spent more than a year behind bars after they created and posted a satirical YouTube video criticizing the authorities. I spent months writing news releases and holding advocacy meetings to urge their release. Finally, in 2010, they were freed.

That made my day, my week, my year. You talk and you write and you scream and you shout, but it can feel like you aren’t getting anything done, because you have governments that avoid doing the right thing. Any small change makes a big difference. It inspires you to keep on doing the work that you do.


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