Famed international rights lawyer Amal Clooney says Azerbaijan is abusing its power by trying to silence critics of the regime, including imprisoned reporter Khadija Ismayilova.
Clooney, who is helping represent Ismayilova before Europe's top human rights court, also said that the case against Ismayilova was wholly politically motivated, aimed at keeping her from continuing her corruption investigations of President Ilham Aliyev and his family members.
"I believe it's important to protect an individual journalist against a powerful state that has overstepped. This is about a government that is abusing its power to silence journalists like Khadija, as well as other critics of the ruling regime," Clooney told RFE/RL in an e-mail conversation on March 15.
"It's important to fight for the right of journalists to tell the world what is happening in their countries," she said.
Ismayilova, a renowned investigative reporter and regular contributor to RFE/RL, was arrested in Baku in December 2014 and put on trial on charges that her supporters said were politically motivated.
In September, a Baku court sentenced her to 7 1/2 years in prison, a ruling that prompted international criticism.
Clooney confirmed in January that she would be joining Ismayilova's defense, a move that brings substantial legal and public clout to her case.
In the case she is bringing before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Clooney told RFE/RL that she and her co-counsel were arguing that there was no genuine suspicion that Ismayilova committed any of the crimes she was charged with and that there was no justification for her pretrial detention.
"On the contrary, the case involved a politically motivated prosecution to restrict her freedom of speech," she said.
"Khadija's case is emblematic of a wider crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan," she said. "Azerbaijan has one of the highest rates of imprisonment of journalists in the world, and yet this is a country that is a member of the Council of Europe, an organization whose goal is to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. This is something that should concern us all."
Supporters of the Aliyev regime have repeatedly tried to smear Ismayilova, including circulating secret surveillance video of her.
Top government officials have also attacked Clooney with spurious allegations that she is of Armenian descent, something that resonates deeply in Azerbaijan. The two countries remain hostile more than two decades after a war over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Clooney, who holds dual British and Lebanese citizenship, again rejected the label.
"I don't see how belonging to any nation, whatever it is, would discredit me in any way. As it happens my heritage is not Armenian, but I do not see why this should matter," said Clooney, who been involved in several high-profile cases around the world, including the defense of a Canadian journalist for Al-Jazeera and an ECHR case in which she represented Armenia.
"But obviously the fact I represented Armenia does not make me Armenian, any more than my representation of Cambodia before the International Court of Justice made me Cambodian, or my advice to the Greek government made me Greek," she said.
Meanwhile, in a handwritten letter to RFE/RL Ismayilova, who is serving her time in a Baku prison, also condemned the attacks on Clooney.
"I chose Clooney because she defended [journalists,] and I was happy with the quality of her defense," Ismayilova said in the letter dated March 10. "I didn't ask about her heritage, as people from civilized countries don't ask such questions. Her opinion or attitudes regarding any nation or event in the past doesn't concern me, as I respect freedom of opinions."
Clooney also confirmed her involvement in a program promoting human rights and intercultural understanding in Armenia through a foundation supported by her husband, actor George Clooney, in a commitment that predates her association with Ismayilova's case.
Ismayilova has embraced the initiative and said that "promoting intercultural understanding should be essential in countries like Armenia, where ethnic conflicts have led to lots of bloody events."
Clooney submitted a lengthy filing to the ECHR on behalf of Ismayilova on March 14, in response to written submissions filed by Azerbaijan earlier this year.
"I will continue to advocate for her release until she is free," she said.