Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has written several open letters since she was jailed without trial in Baku in December 2014. But none of them has gotten any notice in Azerbaijan's state-controlled mass media. That is, until now.
Ismayilova, who is a contributor to RFE/RL, published a letter in The New York Times on June 11 to mark the opening in Baku of the first-ever European Games.
Two days later, state news media in Azerbaijan were distributing what purported to be the same letter in both comically broken English and Azeri, even mimicking the same headline of the original.
But the version printed in Baku differs wildly from Ismayilova's original.
"Azerbaijan's best and brightest have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games," Ismayilova wrote in The New York Times. "They didn't want you to see or hear us and our inconvenient truths."
That passage has been reproduced in Azerbaijan as: "Azerbaijan's worst and most villain (sic) have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games. They didn't want to see our crimes or hear our inconvenient lies."
In her original letter, Ismayilova calls on supporters to "keep fighting for human rights," while the Baku version urges them to "keep fighting for strengthening the fifth colon (sic)," apparently an attempt to label rights activists in the authoritarian country as fifth columnists.
In fact, the entire letter as published in the Azerbaijani media is a mirror-image paraphrase of the original, giving each sentence its opposite meaning. The letter has been distributed under Ismayilova's name and photograph with no indication that it has been manipulated or is satirical.
The falsified version of Ismayilova's letter first appeared on June 13 in Azeri and English on the website of the pro-government SIA news agency. It purports to be the same as the letter that appeared in The New York Times.
The same day, it was republished by the Kaspi news agency. One of Kaspi's founders is Sona Veliyeva, wife of Ali Hasanov, who heads the department of social and political issues within Azerbaijan's presidential administration. Hasanov and his wife were the subjects of one of Ismayilova's investigations.
Other pro-government media in Azerbaijan have also run the false version.
"The false translation of Khadija's letter being circulated by the pro-government press in Azerbaijan is appalling, even by the low standards of the media outlets involved," Rebecca Vincent, a rights activist and coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign that is seeking to "draw attention to the repression, corruption, and censorship" behind Baku's hosting of the European Games, told RFE/RL in a written comment.
"It is the latest incident in many years of attacks against Khadija, and shows that they still fear what she has to say, even from behind bars."
The government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has come under harsh criticism for its human rights record. Rights groups say some 100 political prisoners are being held in Azerbaijan and that many more activists and journalists face harassment and travel bans.
Ismayilova faces charges of tax evasion and being "an illegal entrepreneur," accusations that her supporters say are retaliation for her investigative reports into corruption by Aliyev and members of his family.
In the closing words of her letter in The New York Times, Ismayilova writes: "Don't call just for my freedom; call for the release of all political prisoners. Stand up for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. Stand up for human rights."
The state media of Azerbaijan have "translated" this as: "Don't call just for my freedom; call for the release of all traitors. Stand up for 'freedom of abuse' in Azerbaijan. Stand up for traitors, national betrayers, 'Armenians' more than Armenians."