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Embattled Baku Weighs Benefits, Risks Of Setting Ismayilova Free

Khadija Ismayilova: "I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington."
Khadija Ismayilova: "I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington."

If you believe in good omens, a rare season of amnesty augurs well for Khadija Ismayilova's appeal for prison release.

The RFE/RL investigative journalist is challenging her 7 1/2-year sentence for tax evasion before the Azerbaijani Supreme Court on May 25, just three days before the country celebrates its annual Republic Day with a mass amnesty, proposed by the country's first lady, that anticipates the release of some 3,500 prisoners convicted of minor crimes. Although Ismayilova's criminal conviction makes her ineligible for the pardon, there is speculation that she may benefit from the confluence of events.

Ismayilova's appeal also follows a snap presidential pardon in March of 14 political prisoners, including human rights activist Rasul Jafarov and members of the N!DA pro-democracy youth movement. A 15th prisoner, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, was released less than two weeks later.

Add to that a mounting pressure campaign by Western governments and international press-freedom groups and the looming threat that Ismayilova, if denied her appeal, will go next to the European Court of Human Rights with high-profile lawyer Amal Clooney as her likely representative.

Even so, it's far from certain that President Ilham Aliyev will be swayed by either condemnation or largesse when Ismayilova appears before the court this week.

Sources with close knowledge of the Azerbaijani state say that in the case of jailed government critics like Ismayilova and opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov -- who remains in jail despite a ruling by the Strasbourg court that his arrest was politically motivated -- the prospect of release is seen as a personal threat to the survival of the ruling elite.

"The authorities are trying to keep both Ilgar and Khadija behind bars at whatever cost," says Arif Mammadov, Azerbaijan's former ambassador to the EU, who has since gone into exile and turned into one of the regime's most outspoken critics. "They're seen as a threat to the regime and the regime is aware of this. They're also aware that as soon as Ilgar and Khadija are out of jail, they'll continue their fight. Both have considerable international influence and are well known. It's not surprising that their release has been delayed."

Beyond political insecurities, the economy has become a persistently nagging factor as the government mulls its options on Ismayilova.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva (file photo)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva (file photo)

Ismayilova, who investigated nepotism and corruption in the Aliyev family for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq, first took aim at the ruling clan in the early 2010s. At the time, the regime's petro-fueled trajectory -- built on tens of billions of dollars in energy sales, crystallized in the Aliyevs' personal profiting from the $134 million concert hall built for Baku's 2012 Eurovision -- seemed unstoppable.

But by the time of Ismayilova's arrest, on December 5, 2014, oil production had peaked, foreign investment was dwindling, and the Aliyevs could no longer depend on the promise of fortune to mollify the country's increasingly restive political hierarchy.

In the 30 months since, the economy has gone into free fall, with oil prices plunging below $40 a barrel, the country burning through $10 billion of its foreign-currency reserves, and the local manat currency losing half its value against the dollar in 2015.

Some observers say the prospect of financial chaos may go a long way toward explaining the government's recent wave of pardons.

Aliyev's March pardons, for example, were officially timed to commemorate Norouz, the Persian new year. But they also came as the Azerbaijani leader was looking to secure an invitation from U.S. President Barack Obama to attend a Washington nuclear summit, and lobby the World Bank for a loan in the process.

Mehman Aliyev, who heads Azerbaijan's privately owned Turan news agency, says the Azerbaijani president, after years of bypassing international opinion, is desperately looking to shore up Western financial support. In this, he may see Ismayilova as a useful bargaining chip but only one of dozens of factors on the table -- particularly given last month's outbreak of fresh hostilities with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"I think there are some intensive negotiations going on, and the government is taking steps accordingly," says Aliyev, adding that the issue of Ismayilova's release "is part of something much bigger: resolution of the economic crisis, Karabakh, regional security, and so on. The Azerbaijani government wants to see some reassuring moves from the West -- for example, loans. There have been no clear solutions to this."

Among the levers the United States has at its disposal is the Azerbaijani Democracy Act, proposed legislation that would deny members of Azerbaijan's senior leadership and their families the right to enter the United States.

Arif Mammadov
Arif Mammadov

The bill, proposed in December and tied directly to Ismayilova's case, has stalled amid the creeping thaw in Washington-Baku talks. Former Ambassador Mammadov, who now lives in exile in Europe, describes authorities in Azerbaijan as effectively "alarmed" by the prospect of sanctions and ready to negotiate to keep them at bay.

Within Azerbaijan, officials mulling the Ismayilova and Mammadov cases may also be looking to strike a pre-pardon deal aimed at limiting both prisoners' public activities once they are freed. Ismayilova has repeatedly vowed she will not seek exile if released and will resist a pardon if it means leaving the country without right of return, in order to continue her work.

Arastun Orujlu, a political scientist who runs Baku's East-West research center, says officials are unlikely to grant clemency to either prisoner without a clear plan for what happens next.

"I think the government is trying to neutralize both Ilgar and Khadija, and only then does it intend to release them," he says. "Maybe the government wants them to leave the country as soon as they're out of jail. Or maybe they're trying to get both Khadija and Ilgar to stop their work once they're released. It's hard to say exactly what [the government] has up its sleeve."

In the meantime, public pressure continues to mount. At a time when press freedoms are seen as on the decline worldwide, Ismayilova has become one of the most recognizable faces of journalism under attack.

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, May 3, Ismayilova was granted the 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano award, accepted on her behalf by her mother during a ceremony in Helsinki. In March, Ismayilova published an editorial in The Washington Post calling on the global community to be wary of Aliyev's glib use of prisoner pardons.

WATCH: CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, called on Azerbaijan to free Ismayilova. Amanpour spoke at a UNESCO World Press Freedom Day event in Helsinki on May 3:

Amanpour Calls On Azerbaijan To Release Khadija Ismayilova
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"I am happy -- very happy -- that some political prisoners have been released," she wrote. "[But] I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington so that officials can continue to pretend that it is business as usual. We are hostages of the regime, whether we are inside or outside of prison."

A subsequent op-ed by The New York Times editorial board called for the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, to reconsider the Azerbaijani first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, as a goodwill ambassador.

The watchdog group Sport For Rights, founded by former prisoner Jafarov to leverage Baku's penchant for hosting big-budget sporting events, has called on Formula One officials to demand the release of political prisoners before the Grand Prix race next month. More immediately, Sport For Rights has helped organize a series of 40 worldwide protests in support of Ismayilova on May 27th -- the journalist's 40th birthday.

Samad Sayidov, an Azerbaijani lawmaker who chairs the parliamentary committee on international relations, is among the Baku authorities who remain officially unmoved, saying judicial systems in all democratic countries should be free to function independently without outside meddling.

"None of this external pressure is actually productive," Sayidov says. "And I'm being totally honest when I say that it's not right to interfere in the business of an independent state. Because the more pressure there is, the less power the state will have."

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report