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Cat-And-Mouse In Baku: Authorities Try To Thwart An Azerbaijani Investigative Reporter 

  • RFE/RL

Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova spent time in prison on charges that were widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning investigative reporting on the wealth of President Ilham Aliyev and his family. (file photo)

Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova spent time in prison on charges that were widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning investigative reporting on the wealth of President Ilham Aliyev and his family. (file photo)

In her storied career as Azerbaijan’s most prominent investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova has been harassed, stalked, banned from traveling, and had compromising videos of her circulate on the Internet. She also spent 17 months in custody on charges her supporters say were politically motivated.

But what Ismayilova says happened to her on February 6 as she spoke to a European Parliament panel by video conference may have charted new territory.

Ismayilova, an RFE/RL journalist, was invited to testify before the Brussels panel discussion on human rights in Azerbaijan. Since the conditions of her release from prison last year include a ban on leaving the country, she had to speak by video conference.

About 20 minutes before the beginning of the scheduled discussion, she said her Internet connection was cut off. Five minutes later, she said, the electricity was shut off, not just to her house, but to her entire city district.

Then, she said, two of the main local cell providers also halted her service, restricting her ability to do the video conference. She said she noticed what appeared to be two SUV-type cars with satellite dishes on their roofs parked near her house.

So she called a taxi and set off driving around the capital Baku in search of an Internet signal.

"So now I am wandering around the city, [sitting] in a car, catching the Internet antennas through [the] mobile network," Ismayilova told the Brussels audience. "Hopefully, it will not be cut off in the middle of my speech."

She said she was able to continue speaking for around 10 minutes in the video conference. When the taxi she was in approached a tunnel, she told the driver to park at a nearby gas station, so as not to lose a mobile signal.

'Surrounded By Police'

Immediately after parking, her taxi was approached by three traffic-police cars and two other cars carrying plain-clothed officers, who surrounded the car, she said.

"I was still speaking and I made a sign to driver to get out of the car and speak outside, so I could finish. [The driver] was arguing outside the car, while I finished speaking my main speech, and was waiting for questions," she said.

"While I waited inside the taxi, one of the policemen sat in the driver's seat, and said we had to drive the car to the" police lot for impounding cars.

Coincidentally, Ismayilova said, one of her colleagues happened to be driving by. The police gave her permission to leave, and while in her colleague's car, she was able to answer one question from the panel in Brussels. Then her signal was lost and she couldn’t reconnect.

Her phone service, she said, was restored an hour later.

WATCH: Cat-And-Mouse In Baku by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

In Brussels, panel participant Darya Mustafayeva told RFE/RL that Ismayilova was responding to the first question from an audience member when the connection was lost.

"We didn't see any police or police cars or anything like that. We only saw her face as she was in a moving car the whole time and then the connection broke," said Mustafayeva, who represents the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, a group that brings together civil society organizations in the European Union and six former Soviet republics.

Aliyev Cancels Meeting

As it happened, Ismailyova's presentation overlapped with remarks given by Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, who was visiting Brussels to mark the beginning of negotiations between the European Union and the South Caucasus nation on a new cooperation agreement.

Speaking briefly before reporters, Aliyev made no mention of human rights as he spoke alongside European Council President Donald Tusk.

Tusk, meanwhile, said the issue of human rights did come up in their meeting.

"I stressed the importance attached to human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression," he said.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) poses with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on February 6.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) poses with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on February 6.

Aliyev later canceled a meeting with the European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, though it was unclear whether it was specifically due to the panel discussion Ismayilova was speaking at.

Officials with Azerbaijan's Ministry of Communications could not immediately be reached for comment. Azerbaijani authorities did not immediately respond to queries from RFE/RL.

Ismayilova was detained in December 2014 and later sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison on charges that were widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning reporting on the wealth of Aliyev and his family.

Among her most notable investigations was that Aliyev's relatives personally profited in the construction of a $134 million concert hall, built for Baku's hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

Since her release in May 2016, she has continued to openly criticize corruption in Azerbaijan and conducted other journalistic investigations

With reporting by Mike Eckel in Washington

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