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Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova Marks Six Months In Pretrial Detention

  • RFE/RL

Honoree Khadija Ismayilova speaks at the 2012 Courage in Journalism Awards hosted by the International Women's Media Foundation in Beverly Hills, California, on October 29, 2012.

Honoree Khadija Ismayilova speaks at the 2012 Courage in Journalism Awards hosted by the International Women's Media Foundation in Beverly Hills, California, on October 29, 2012.

Jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova is marking six months in pretrial detention on a series of charges that have been internationally condemned as politically motivated.

The European Union, the Council of Europe, and the United States -- as well as nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) -- have repeatedly called for her release and expressed concerns that the charges against Ismayilova are retaliation for her investigative reports into corruption within President Ilham Aliyev's regime.

Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL whose work has documented the hidden business interests of Aliyev's family, was accused of treason on December 4, 2014, by the head of Aliyev's presidential administration, Ramiz Mehdiyev.

A day later, she was arrested in Baku on an initial charge of driving a former colleague to attempt suicide.

Those charges were dropped after 3 1/2 months when the man she had allegedly encouraged to commit suicide publicly announced he would not testify against her.

But meanwhile, prosecutors had filed new charges against her in relation to her work with RFE/RL, a noncommercial entity -- charging that she was an "illegal entrepreneur" for working as a freelancer with foreign media without being registered by Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry.

In a trial that was closed to the public, Ismayilova was also convicted in late February of criminal libel and fined about $2,400.

Ismayilova: 'You Know I'm Innocent'

In early March, Ismayilova managed to release a letter to international media that included her defiant statement at the closed trial in Baku's Kurdukhani prison.

She described Aliyev's administrative as a "criminal" and "repressive regime," and told the judge, "You have no evidence against me."

She told the judge and prosecutors, "I know that I am innocent, and no matter how hard you try to isolate me from the community, they too know I am innocent."

She also said that Azerbaijan "has become a safe haven for liars, fake witnesses, and dishonest prosecutors and judges."

Although Ismayilova is legally allowed to send letters from the detention center, they have frequently been confiscated by prison staff and never delivered.

But in her early March letter, she expressed her feelings watching the initial charge against her dropped and the addition of new charges.

"That case didn't work, so the government needed a new case against me and they made it. I have spent 3 1/2 months in detention waiting for one prosecution, which didn't work out," Ismayilova said. "Now another one starts. Let us see if prosecutors will produce something smarter than they did so far."

Ismayilova also spoke philosophically in that letter about her prolonged pretrial detention.

"Prison is not the end of life," she said. "I am strong and see it as a possibility to learn the system from the other side.

"Communicating with alleged criminals, who do or don't accept their guilt, I am learning the wrongdoings of the penitentiary and justice system. It is, in fact, an unparalleled opportunity."

Raid, Closure Of RFE/RL Bureau

A few weeks after her arrest, authorities in Azerbaijan on December 26 raided and closed RFE/RL's Baku bureau -- interrogating its employees and contractors and confiscating documents, files, and equipment before sealing off the premises.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) denounced that raid as "another severe blow to free media and free expression" in Azerbaijan.

The U.S. State Department said the raid, along with the denial of access to legal counsel of RFE/RL employees who were being interrogated, raised further concerns about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan.

The director of Aliyev's Foreign Relations Department, Novrusz Mammadov, rejected that criticism -- accusing U.S. diplomats of "losing their sense of proportion."

The arrest of Ismayilova and the forced closure of RFE/RL's Baku's bureau comes amid a broader crackdown on independent journalists, activists, and nongovernmental groups that have criticized authorities in Azerbaijan.

At the end of 2014, about 15 journalists and bloggers were being held in Azerbaijan, including Ismayilova.

In May, the PEN American Center honored Ismayilova with its PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that she had been working for before her arrest has launched what it calls the Khadija Project -- a series of investigative reports aimed at "continuing her work in defiance of her ongoing incarceration."

The National Press Club in Washington says it will honor Ismayilova with a press-freedom award in July.

But under the latest court rulings from Baku, Ismayilova is to remain in pretrial detention at least until the middle of August.

There is no clear date when her trial will be concluded.