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Ismayilova Suggests Azerbaijani Court Rushing Toward Verdict

Khadija Ismayilova has been jailed in a pretrial detention facility since her arrest in December. (file photo)
Khadija Ismayilova has been jailed in a pretrial detention facility since her arrest in December. (file photo)

BAKU -- A Baku court has pressed ahead with the trial of Khadija Ismayilova, shrugging off the absence of the investigative journalist's lawyers and her call for a slower pace.

Ismayilova, an RFE/RL contributor who has won awards for her coverage of official corruption in oil-rich Azerbaijan, is being tried on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power that she says are politically motivated.

Some of her lawyers did not show up for the hearing on August 11, prompting a warning from the judge that they would be "punished."

Ismayilova protested, saying the attorneys had told the judge in advance that they would be unable to attend due to commitments in other cases.

She also suggested the court was rushing toward a verdict, saying that daily hearings on weekdays were preventing her from getting the two hours of exercise outdoors to which she is entitled by law.

Ismayilova, who has reported extensively on the financial dealings of President Ilham Aliyev and members of his family, has been jailed in a pretrial detention facility since her arrest in December. The trial began on August 7 after preliminary hearings in July.

The courtroom has been crowded every day, but Ismayilova told the judge that it was packed with people who do not have anything to do with the case or with her personally.

Judge Ramela Allahverdiyeva claimed that all those in the courtroom were participants in the trial or representatives of diplomatic missions. She did not allow independent journalists or supporters of Ismayilova, including former opposition presidential candidate Camil Hasanli, to attend.

"Khadija is innocent and must be released right away," Hasanli told supporters of Ismayilova outside the courthouse during a break.

Ismayilova's mother, Elmira Ismayilova, was allowed to attend the trial on August 11. She told reporters during a break that she saw almost no familiar face in the courtroom.

Elmira Ismayilova and Cavad Cavadov, a defense lawyer who attended the hearing, said none of the witnesses who testified gave evidence implicating Ismayilova in any of the crimes she has been charged with.

Ismayilova was initially charged with inciting a former colleague, Tural Mustafayev, to attempt suicide. The other charges were added later.

In July, Mustafayev told a preliminary hearing that he had "defamed" Ismayilova under pressure from law-enforcement agencies, but a defense motion to dismiss the charge was rejected.

In court on August 10, Mustafayev said that he had suffered a nervous breakdown in the past due to differences with his fiancee and that Ismayilova had nothing to do with his suicide attempt. The judge, however, refused to remove him from the case, in which he has the legal status of an alleged victim.

Ismayilova, 39, is among the most prominent of dozens of activists, journalists, and government critics who have been jailed in Azerbaijan as part of what rights groups say is a clampdown on dissent in the former Soviet republic.

She says the charges against her are an attempt to silence her reporting.

The United States and other Western governments have called for Ismayilova's release. Amnesty International has called her a "prisoner of conscience" and the Committee to Protect Journalists has termed the charges against her retaliation for her journalistic activity.

On August 10, Human Rights Watch announced 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."