I recently wrote an article about the 2015 Baku Euro Games based on an interview with environmental justice campaigner Emma Hughes. The Games were part of an advertising pitch to gain social approval within Azerbaijan’s future European gas and oil markets, shoring up legitimacy for the unholy marriage of BP and the Azeri ruling elite. Hughes’ recent book All That Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan focused on Azerbaijan’s human rights record, in particular its low level of media freedom and the high number of political prisoners. On 1 September 2015 one of those prisoners, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison on politically-motivated charges of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.
In the preceding years Azerbaijan’s ruling establishment had attempted to silence Ismayilova due to her inflinching focus on state corruption. Her reportage had included uncovering the privatization of the services branch of the state airline (including a bank) that fell into the hands of family members of high-ranking officials, and revealing that the first family was personally profiting from the construction of the US $134 million Crystal Hall (built for Baku’s 2012 hosting of Eurovision). Ismayilova had already been subjected to harassment and intimidation. In 2012 she received intimate snapshots taken from the bedroom of herself and her boyfriend, with a letter threatening “public humiliation” if she did not “behave.” In 2013 she was sentenced to 220 hours of community service for attending an “unsanctioned” protest.
However it was her latest project, entitled ‘Tracking the Billions Stolen in Azerbaijan’, which truly roused the ire of Aliyev dynasty and their associated sycophants. More than twenty of Khadija’s friends (with assistance from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) have continued to build on this expansive work of interactive journalism since her detention.
Ismayilova was arrested on 5 December 2014 on charges of incitement to suicide, charges widely condemned by human rights and media freedom groups (see here, here and here). She was put into two months of pre-trial detention, during which period a number of other cases were filed against her. On 31 August Ismayilova made her closing statement to the court, in which she resolutely proclaimed that like the oil price upon which Azerbaijan’s wealth relies, “the repression machine is about to collapse.” It is a touching address on the nature of the charges against her and importance of fearless investigative journalism. This passage from near the end of the address shows that in spite of her incarceration Khadija Ismayilova will not give up her fight:
And finally, the prison sentence awaiting me. Friends ask me what I am expecting in prison. To be honest, I am not thinking about that. Especially when this country is facing so many other troubles. I will just be one out of 500 other prisoners held at Prison No. 4. There I am going to have an opportunity to expose the legends of analogous development, and of the transparency of the penitentiary services. I am one of those people who knows how to turn a problem into an opportunity. It has always been this way. I will build homes from the stones thrown at me.