(Berlin) – The arrest of Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s leading investigative journalist and ardent government critic, is a devastating blow to critical voices in Azerbaijan.
The Sabail District Court of Baku on December 5, 2014, ordered Ismayilova held for two months in pretrial custody, pending investigation on charges of allegedly driving someone to attempt suicide.
“Khadija Ismayilova is an inconvenient messenger, and her arrest fits squarely among the Azerbaijani government’s concerted efforts to silence dissenting voices,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “She should be released immediately.”
The prosecutor’s office pressed charges against Ismayilova a day after the head of the presidential administration, Ramiz Mehdiyev, published an article calling the country’s nongovernmental groups a “fifth column” and openly accusing her of treason.
Little is known about the grounds for the charges, as Ismayilova’s lawyer has signed a nondisclosure statement.
Ismayilova had anticipated her arrest for some time and wanted Azerbaijan’s international partners to engage publicly with the authorities rather than using quiet diplomacy. She also encouraged her peers to continue the fight for human rights in Azerbaijan.
Ismayilova is known for her extensive reporting on government corruption, including exposing the business interests of the ruling family. Her arrest on December 5 is the latest in a series of efforts by the authorities to silence her. Starting in February, police questioned Ismayilova several times as a witness in an investigation into the leaking of state secrets. The questioning started a few days after pro-government media outlets claimed she had handed files on Azerbaijani opposition politicians to United States Senate staff members who were allegedly working as US intelligence agents, a claim the US embassy denied.
Ismayilova is also facing a separate criminal defamation suit brought by a former political opposition member who claimed that Ismayilova posted a document online in which she revealed his name as an informant for government intelligence services. Ismayilova has denied the claim.
On October 12, customs officials prevented Ismayilova from leaving Azerbaijan to attend an international conference; the prosecutor’s office refused to explain the reasons for the travel ban. Earlier in October, Baku airport authorities detained Ismayilova for several hours as she was returning from Strasbourg, where she had met with Council of Europe officials to discuss the ongoing crackdown in Azerbaijan. The authorities searched her thoroughly and released her four hours later.
Ismayilova was the target of an orchestrated smear campaign in 2012, when a video appeared online containing intimate and illegally obtained images of her.
Ismayilova’s arrest is the latest move in the government’s systematic crackdown on independent voices. Over the last two-and-a-half years Azerbaijan has brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 50 independent and opposition political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders. Most are behind bars.
“For months Azerbaijan’s international partners have expressed concern about the crackdown,” Gogia said. “But Ismayilova’s arrest should be the last straw. International partners need to make clear to Azerbaijan that there will be no more business as usual as long as critics remain behind bars.”