BAKU -- Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova went on trial on August 7 in a packed courtroom in Baku, facing charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power that she says are politically motivated punishment for her dogged reporting.
Dozens of activists, journalists, and some members of the diplomatic corps -- eager to monitor the trial of a journalist who has reported extensively on official corruption in tightly controlled, oil-rich Azerbaijan -- were unable to get inside the courtroom.
The trial comes eight months after the arrest of Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL. Rights groups and Western governments have urged her release from pretrial detention, calling the case part of a persistent campaign by long-ruling President Ilham Aliyev's government to silence dissent.
Ismayilova's relatives were not allowed to be present in the courtroom, and journalists were also kept out. Aside from people who court officials said were participants in the process, only some representatives of foreign embassies were allowed to attend.
"Really, it is shameful," said Avaz Zeynalli, a journalist who tried to attend. "If...not a single journalist, none of Khadija's family members or friends, and no work colleagues were allowed into the courtroom, then what kind of trial is that?"
After the session got under way, Ismayilova's lawyers asked the judge to let their client out of the defendant's glass cage during the trial.
The judge rejected the request, saying that it would be better for her safety to be kept inside the enclosure.
The judge also rejected a defense motion to drop the tax evasion charge. Defense lawyer Fariz Namazli said the charge was imposed despite the fact that a tax inspection was frozen in May, caling that "a sign of particular ill-will."
During a break, Namazli said his client told the court she is innocent.
"Khadija Ismayilova spoke [before the court], and in her speech she said that she does not consider herself guilty of any charges," he told reporters, adding: "In general, none of these charges apply to her."
After the break, Ismayilova and her lawyers made a motion to replace the panel of judges. The judge chairing the trial announced a break, after which he adjourned the hearing until August 10 without ruling on the motion -- one that judges in the former Soviet Union very rarely satisfy.
Ismayilova, 39, has reported extensively on the financial dealings of Aliyev -- who has tolerated little dissent and shrugged off Western criticism since he succeeded his father as president in 2003 -- and members of his family.
She was detained in December on suspicion of inciting a former colleague, Tural Mustafayev, to attempt suicide, but was later also charged with embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
Mustafayev, who was required to attend the trial on April 7, did not show up. He told a preliminary hearing on July 24 that he had "defamed" Ismayilova under pressure from law-enforcement agencies, but a defense motion to dismiss the charge was rejected at that time.
Ismayilova called for Mustafayev to be present at the trial, and the judge ruled that he must be brought to trial by force if he refuses. It was unclear when that would happen.
Islmayilova 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 and independent voices.
Amnesty International has called Ismayilova a "prisoner of conscience" and the Committee to Protect Journalists has termed the charges against her retaliation for her journalistic activity. On July 29, the U.S. National Press Club presented its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award to Ismayilova.
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.
Representatives of The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees RFE/RL and Voice of America, have repeatedly contacted Azerbaijani officials to protest Ismayilova's incarceration.
RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic has called Ismayilova's detention "the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan."