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The Reporting That Jailed Khadija

  • Charles Recknagel

Khadija Ismayilova accepts the 2012 Courage in Journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation in New York in October 2012.

Khadija Ismayilova accepts the 2012 Courage in Journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation in New York in October 2012.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova made a name for herself uncovering official corruption in a country where criticism of the government is rarely tolerated and frequently punished.

For her efforts, the RFE/RL contributor has been secretly videotaped, publicly smeared, threatened, accused of treason -- and now sentenced to a long prison term.

On September 1, a court in Baku found Ismayilova guilty of criminal libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power and sentenced her to 7 1/2 years in prison.

Ismayilova has claimed the charges against her are politically motivated, and her detention has been roundly criticized as evidence of official repression in Azerbaijan.

The journalist's work has clearly irked the authorities and other powerful figures in Azerbaijan. What and who, exactly, did she take on?

High-Level Reporting

Ismayilova's exposés, written until she was put in pretrial detention late last year, focused on apparent nepotism within the highest levels of Azerbaijan's ruling establishment, including the family of President Ilham Aliyev.

Broadcast by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq, the reports were widely heard within the country but pointedly ignored by officials, who refused to respond to the detailed information they contained.

State Privatization

In August 2010, Ismayilova revealed that the government's privatization of many of the state airline AZAL's service branches, including a bank, had completely bypassed the government's State Committee on Privatization of State Property, which was supposed to ensure a transparent competition.

Using documents obtained by the State Committee on Financial Securities, she and co-reporter Ulviyye Asadzade found that the bank's new owners include two family members of highly placed officials. One is the AZAL president's wife, Zarifa Hamzayeva; the other is Arzu Aliyeva, the daughter of President Aliyev.

Construction Corruption

In May 2012, in a joint investigation by RFE/RL and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Ismayilova discovered that the first family was personally profiting from the construction of a new $134 million concert showplace called the Crystal Hall that was being prepared to host that year's Eurovision Song Contest.

The Aliyev family's involvement was through concealed ownership of the Azenco construction company, which had quietly become a subcontractor to the only company listed in official documents as constructing the concert hall, Germany's Alpine Bau Deutschland AG.

Tracing the ownership of Azenco back through a series of shell companies, the investigation discovered that its majority owners belonged to a firm registered to the then home address of Aliyev's wife and two daughters. Azenco has routinely received contracts for state-funded projects, with the State Procurement Agency records showing it was awarded contracts worth $79 million in 2010 alone.

Other reports by Ismayilova include an exposé in 2012 of how the Azerbaijani government awarded the rights to a lucrative gold field to President Aliyev's family and a 2014 report on how, through a trail of owners and offshore registrations, Aliyev's two daughters appear to be connected to Azerbaijan's largest mobile-phone business, Azercell.

Breaking New Ground

Ismayilova's reports were among the first of their kind in Azerbaijan. OCCRP editor Drew Sullivan says that gave them particular impact. "She was the first person to show the names of the [Aliyev] family on these businesses that the government denied that they had any dealings with," he says.

"She was the one who truly came up with the first evidence, and I think that the first evidence is critically important because it breaks the illusion," Sullivan explains. "The government's propaganda allows people to forget about it but when you see the evidence and when the documents are there, you can't hide it any longer. The fact that the government reacted as it did to Khadija shows that they believe she was having an effect."

Sullivan says Ismayilova knew from the start that investigating the Aliyevs was dangerous, but she accepted that risk.

"She knows intimately how the government of Azerbaijan works and she knows the people she is dealing with and these are thuggish, organized-crime kind of people. They are vicious, they are mean, they are personal about things and anybody who steps in their way, whether it is a political party, a business leader, or anybody else, has been crushed in Azerbaijan and she has seen this for decades. And so, when she took on these people, she knew exactly what to expect and she knew she was going to be arrested. And that's courage."

Told To 'Behave'

Ismayilova continued her investigative work despite coming under mounting pressure to stop, first from anonymous parties and later directly from the authorities.

In March 2012, she received an unsigned letter containing images from a video camera secretly planted in her bedroom that recorded her intimate life. The letter warned her to "behave" if she did not want the images published. She publicly denounced the apparent attempt at blackmail as an effort to halt her work and the images were anonymously placed on the Internet.

A year later, a new video appeared on the Internet and then, in February 2014, judicial authorities summoned her for questioning on suspicion of leaking state secrets to the United States. When she continued to work, she was arrested and jailed on December 5, 2014, on charges of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide. That charge was later withdrawn by her accuser but replaced by new charges of libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.

International Attention

Ismayilova's imprisonment has sparked widespread calls for her release. The PEN American Center this year awarded her its Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, given annually to "an imprisoned writer persecuted for exercising her right to free expression," and editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post have cited her detention as a measure of the repression of free speech in Azerbaijan.

In a brief note from jail to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Ismayilova wrote in December that she remained upbeat as she faced the prospect of potentially longer imprisonment if the court found her guilty on charges she says are fabricated and politically motivated.

"You all know why I am here in prison," she wrote. "Uncovering corruption is the real reason. And the only way to prove oppressive regimes wrong is to continue uncovering corruption, to continue defending the rights of oppressed people. Yes, there is a price to pay. But it is worth it!"

Azerbaijani authorities raided the RFE/RL bureau in Baku on December 26 without explanation and sealed it shut. They confiscated company documents and equipment without due process, detained bureau staff without legal representation, and later expelled the bureau's legal counsel from court proceedings and placed arbitrary bans restricting the travel of some employees.

RFE/RL closed its still sealed Baku bureau in May but continues to broadcast to Azerbaijan from its headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic.