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Azerbaijan

Baku Prosecutor Seeks Nine-Year Sentence For Journalist Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

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By RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

A state prosecutor in Azerbaijan has asked for a nine-year prison sentence for Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL.

The request on August 21 came a day after the prosecution wrapped up its case against Ismayilova, who is being tried on economic crimes charges she says are politically motivated. 

The judge adjourned the hearing after the sentencing request was made, and scheduled the next session for August 26. The verdict could come on that day.

Ismayilova and international human rights organizations have called her trial politically motivated punishment for her investigations into corruption at the highest levels of government in the oil-producing former Soviet republic.

Ismayilova's mother, Elmira, said that Khadija laughed when she heard the sentencing request.

"My child has never done anything bad," Elmira told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "She has always spoken the truth."

Ismayilova, who has won numerous international awards for her reporting, has accused the court of rushing through her trial and not giving her or her lawyers sufficient chance to respond to the charges.

"This is an express court. You leave no time for us to discuss the proceedings," she told the judge on August 12.

Only some representatives of foreign embassies have been able to attend Ismayilova's trial, which began August 7. Independent journalists and activists have been barred throughout the proceedings.

Islmayilova, 39, is among the most prominent of dozens of activists, journalists, and government critics who have been targeted in what rights groups say is a persistent clampdown by long-ruling President Ilham Aliyev's government on dissent. 

Last week, another Baku court handed Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus an 8 1/2-year prison sentence and her severely ailing husband Arif a seven-year-term on charges of economic crimes.

Exposés

Since her arrest in December, Ismayilova has been kept in pretrial detention despite repeated calls by the United States and other Western governments for her release. Amnesty International called her a "prisoner of conscience" and the Committee to Protect Journalists termed the charges against her retaliation for her journalistic activity.

Among her reports, which were broadcast by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, were 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 shell owners and offshore registrations, Aliyev's two daughters appear to be connected to Azerbaijan’s largest mobile phone business, Azercell. 

Ismayilova was arrested in December on accusations by a former colleague, Tural Mustafayev, that she had incited him to attempt suicide. Prosecutors later added charges of libel, tax evasion, and illegal business activity.

Mustafayev told the court on August 10 that Ismayilova had nothing to do with his suicide attempt and that he suffered a nervous breakdown in the past due to differences with his fiancee. However, the judge refused to remove him from the case, in which he had the legal status of an alleged victim. The court also rejected a defense motion to dismiss Mustafayev's charge after told a preliminary hearing on July 24 that he had "defamed" Ismayilova under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

Ismayilova is the recipient of numerous awards. 

Human Rights Watch on On August 10 named Ismayilova as a recipient of the 2015 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism. 

On July 29, the U.S. National Press Club presented to Ismayilova its highest press freedom prize, the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. 

In May, she won a prestigious media freedom award from the PEN American Center, whose executive director said Ismayilova has "tackled corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government."

Last month, a group of 16 U.S. senators sent a letter to Aliyev expressing concern over a "systematic crackdown on human rights and independent civil society." They called on him to "provide a more tolerant environment" and urged him to release Ismayilova.

Aliyev has tolerated little dissent and has shrugged off Western criticism since he succeeded his father as president of the Caspian Sea coast country in 2003.

Written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

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