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Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova Asserts Innocence In First Day of Trial


Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom As Ismayilova's Trial Begins
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WATCH: Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom As Ismayilova's Trial Begins

Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova asserted her innocence during the first day of her trial in Baku, saying the charges against her of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power are politically motivated.

Ismayilova, who reported extensively on official corruption in Azerbaijan as an RFE/RL contributor, was ordered to return to court on August 7.

The jailed investigative reporter told the court during the preliminary hearing on June 24 that "[Azerbijani President] Ilham Aliyev has arrested me because of personal hostility" and "to hinder my journalistic activity."

Her lawyer filed motions during the hearing for dismissal of the case, substitution of pretrial detention with home arrest, and exclusion of some witnesses' names from the witness list.

None of those defense motions was upheld.

The court left unresolved another defense motion to allow a lawyer for RFE/RL to participate in the trial in order to defend Ismayilova against accusations derived from a criminal case launched in December against RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq.

The accusations against the radio, including illegal broadcasting and tax evasion, stem from an ongoing investigation by authorities of Radio Azadliq in connection with local laws on foreign funding of NGOs.

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

Police barred dozens of activists, journalists, and some members of the diplomatic corps from entering the court building to witness the proceedings.

A representative of the French Embassy told correspondents on the scene that he was denied entry despite rules against excluding diplomats.

Supporters, who chanted Ismayilova's name outside the court building as the trial began, claimed the hearing was conducted in a small room filled with people unrelated to her case in order to keep observers out.

Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom As Ismayilova's Trial Begins
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WATCH: Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom

The trial comes after seven months of pretrial detention for Ismayilova. During that time international rights groups have repeatedly called for her release.

ALSO READ: The Reporting That Jailed Khadija

Amnesty International has called Ismayilova a "prisoner of conscience" and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has termed the charges against her retaliation for her journalistic activity.

Ismayilova's exposés, broadcast by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq, were widely heard within the country but publicly ignored by officials, who refused to comment on their contents.

Her work irked authorities by focusing on apparent nepotism within the highest levels of the ruling establishment, including the presidential family.

MORE: Khadija Live Blog (In Azeri)

Her investigations included revealing in 2010 that the government's privatization of many of the state airline AZAL's service branches bypassed the committee tasked with assuring a transparent competition. She discovered that the secretive privatization process awarded a key bank that had belonged to AZAL to new owners who included Aliyev's daughter, Arzu Aliyeva.

Ismayilova was repeatedly harassed and warned to abandon her work, first by unknown parties who sought to blackmail her over pictures of her intimate life that were made by a camera secretly planted in her bedroom.

She was later summoned by judicial authorities on suspicion of leaking state secrets to the United States and, when she continued working, was finally arrested and jailed on December 5. She was first charged with inciting a former colleague to commit suicide. When those charges were subsequently withdrawn by her accuser, they were supplemented by the current charges of illegal financial activities.

The man who had accused Ismayilova of inciting him to suicide, Tural Mustafayev, said at the hearing on July 24 that he had "defamed" her under pressure from law-enforcement agencies. However, a defense motion for the court to now dismiss his charge against Ismayilova was refused.

Ali Karimli, head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL at the hearing July 24 that the government is showing a "malicious" attitude in trying Ismayilova, including in filling the courtroom to exclude activists and journalists.

"This special attitude is connected with Khadija Ismayilova's journalistic investigations into the business deals of Ilham Aliyev and his family members," Karimli said.

Many international observers view Ismayilova's arrest and trial as evidence of a growing repression of free speech in Azerbaijan.

A group of 16 U.S. senators sent a letter to Aliyev earlier this month 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.

RFE/RL's co-CEO and editor in chief, Nenad Pejic, has called her detention "the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan."

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.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on material from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku

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