The World’s Most Famous Dissident Journalist Returns to the Fight

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian rulers defamed, threatened, and jailed their country’s most stubborn journalist. But Khadija Ismayilova doesn’t know when to quit.

Khadija crop
Khadija crop

Last week, Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison after a Supreme Court decision to suspend the remainder of her seven-and-a-half year sentence.

Last week, Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison after a Supreme Court decision to suspend the remainder of her seven-and-a-half year sentence.

Khadija — as she is known to friends and colleagues around the world — was released just two days ahead of her fortieth birthday on Friday, May 27, on which activists in some 40 cities around the world had planned to call for her freedom. The regime undoubtedly hoped that Ismayilova’s pre-emptive release would put a damper on international coverage of the protests. Yet some of us her friends — among whom I count myself — concluded that the public still needs to know about her struggle. After all, she may be out of prison, but she’s still in Azerbaijan — and she certainly has no plans to give up telling the truth about the regime.

As a result, the scheduled demonstrations, picnics, discussions, and birthday-themed parties (which were organized by the Sport for Rights campaign) still took place. In addition to celebrating Ismayilova’s birthday and her freedom, they also called attention to the fact that she still faces a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence, and that there are close to 70 other political prisoners still in Azerbaijani jails. The extent of the demonstrations on her behalf — and the accolades pouring in from governments, politicians, and international organizations — offer eloquent evidence of Ismayilova’s prominence. Until her release, she was surely one of the world’s best-known political prisoners. In part, this is a testament to the severity of the ordeals she has faced as an independent reporter in her small Caucasian country.

Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic about the size of Maine, situated between the Caspian and the Black seas, facing Russia in the north and Iran in the south. The country is known for its rampant corruption, its appalling human rights record, and its often-clumsy attempts to buy influence and goodwill abroad. Its president, Ilham Aliyev, has been in power since 2003, having taken over from his father, who occupied the position since the early 90s. Seeking to moderate its terrible reputation, Aliyev’s regime spends a fortune in Washington to bolster its image as a partner of the United States — and its efforts sometimes pay off, even as it continues to lock up its critics at home.

Ismayilova is quite possibly the fiercest of these critics, and certainly the best known. Her investigative work over the last six years has exposed the corruption in the highest echelons of Azerbaijan’s ruling establishment, from its lucrative business deals to the offshore companies and properties owned by the Aliyev family. The recently leaked “Panama Papers,” described by some as the biggest data leak in history, include some of her earlier exposes of Azerbaijani corruption.

Prior to her arrest, Ismayilova was the host of “After Work,” a daily radio show on the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a news platform funded by the U.S. Congress. The Azerbaijani government shut down the service shortly after her arrest. “She made the show extremely popular,” recalls Kenan Aliyev, her former RFE/RL boss (who has no relation to the president). “She asked tough questions of both the opposition and of government officials who would come to her show. And when there was no opposing side, she would often take on that responsibility, playing devil’s advocate.” Some of her guests, he says, were so intimidated by her relentless questioning that they refused to appear again.

In one such instance, Ismayilova invited an official from the Ministry of Ecology onto the show to talk about pollution of water reservoirs in one of Azerbaijan’s regions. The official claimed that the water was absolutely safe to drink, despite reports from local residents that a gold and copper processing plant had polluted it and killed their livestock. Out of nowhere, Ismayilova produced a glass of that very same water and challenged him to drink it. The official drank the water, asking her later if she was satisfied. “I am not,” she said, “because we don’t know what this water will do to you.”

No one got a free pass from Ismayilova — not representatives of the regime, and not even its critics. In a November 2014 interview with Jamil Hasanli, an opposition leader and former presidential candidate, she demanded that he provide concrete examples of his claims that protesters had been persecuted ahead of the 2015 parliamentary elections — and he could produce only one. She went on to criticize the National Council, which represents a union of opposition parties, for failing to properly document the government’s violations.

This is how Ismayilova built her audience: with humor, intelligence, toughness, and an eye for an interesting story. Most of all, her coverage focused on demonstrating how corruption affects the daily lives of her countrymen. “She helped people understand their money was being stolen,” says Aliyev, her former boss. “She never told her listeners to take the streets or have a revolution. She simply said, ‘this is your money being stolen and that’s it.’ Her stories were based on facts, without exaggeration.” This might be considered normal journalistic practice in the West, but in Azerbaijan, Ismayilova’s tough but professional approach was unique.

Ismayilova knew that calling attention to corruption was a dangerous job. A friend and colleague, Elmar Huysenov, was murdered in front of his home in Baku in 2005. He had been the founder and editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine called Monitor in which he published hard-hitting commentary that angered the authorities. At the time of his murder, the magazine was facing several lawsuits, all launched by government officials. To this day, the perpetrators of the crime remain at large.

In 2011, another journalist, Rafig Tagi, was stabbed seven times while on his way home, dying days later in a Baku hospital. Tagi had contributed to RFE/RL and local outlets as a freelance writer, and he, too, was well known for his criticism of the government. Just like Huseynov, Tagi had received numerous threats to which the authorities were reluctant to respond. The perpetrators of this murder are also still at large.

But Ismayilova kept reporting — even as the space for independent media continued to shrink. After she co-authored a story in 2010 exposing a government privatization scheme that had bypassed a state body charged with ensuring transparent competition, Azerbaijan’s parliament responded by passing a number of restrictive amendments limiting the rights of journalists to obtain information and granting the ruling family immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during Aliyev’s presidency. It’s no wonder that the Committee to Protect Journalists has listed Azerbaijan among the 10 most censored countries in the world.

The same stubbornness that made Ismayilova a tenacious reporter could also make her challenging to work with. Aliyev, her former boss, says that they often disagreed about how best to handle the guests on her show — especially when she interviewed them more aggressively than he had anticipated. Her stubbornness sometimes extended to her dealings with other colleagues. “No matter what time of the day it was, Khadija never gave up,” says Miranda Patrucic from the Organized Crime Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), who met her several years ago at a conference in Istanbul. “She would call at 2 am and ask questions about a specific case she was looking into. She is like a force of nature. You can never say no to her.”

Prior to her arrest, Ismayilova had been working on a story about the Azerbaijan International Mineral Resources Operating Company (AIMROC), which had a 70 percent stake several important gold mines. The remaining shares belonged to the government.

In an earlier investigation, Ismayilova had revealed that AIMROC was not just one company but four. Digging deeper last year, she discovered that one of the four companies, Globex, was owned by three companies registered in Panama that belonged to Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva — the daughters of the president. A third owner, Olivier Mestelan, had “long had close ties to the Aliyev family,” wrote Ismayilova and her colleague. In effect, she had exposed that the president’s family owned a direct and secret stake — protected through offshore shell companies — in a major and controversial firm.

The Aliyev family never responded to any of these revelations, leaving other government officials to explain the whole thing away. Just recently, referring to the Panama Papers, one parliament official said, “Who cares what has been revealed about the president? The president has a right to own a house, a mansion and even a castle. The president doesn’t have to live off a salary he withdraws from the ATM.”

Many suspected that the directness of Ismayilova’s challenge to the ruling family made her arrest inevitable — and that day finally came on December 5, 2014. Bizarrely, she was first charged with inciting a man to commit suicide, based on the complaint of a former colleague who later claimed he was under “emotional stress” and had been pressured by the authorities to press charges. The charges against Ismayilova were eventually expanded to include embezzlement, illegal businesses activity, tax evasion, and abuse of power — the same accusations that the government often makes against prominent activists.

“I was actually happy she was arrested,” says Elmira Ismayilova, Khadija’s mother. Seeing in her daughter in jail, she says, was preferable to hearing that she’d met the same fate as her murdered colleagues.

Ismayilova had won enough recognition, both at home and abroad, that a direct physical attack was unlikely. But the government was not above using other abhorrent tactics. In 2012, she received a package that contained pictures, taken in her own home, of her having sex with a boyfriend. It came with a note of warning: “Whore, behave yourself, or you will be defamed.” Another package with the same images was sent to her brother.

This was a blatant attempt at manipulation. Azerbaijan is still a traditional and patriarchal society, one in which sex before marriage is taboo. Most Azeri women leave their family homes only upon marriage, and living alone, as Ismayilova did, made her vulnerable to defamation that made use of these stereotypes.

Though honor killings are not widespread in Azerbaijan, they are not unknown. Ismayilova’s mother remembers going to her son to beg him not to do anything rash — it was clear, she said, that the government had sent him the photographs for a reason. If the regime could not kill Ismayilova directly, it could at least hope that her brother might.

Though it was difficult for her, and caused her great pain, Ismayilova went public with the affair, organizing a press conference in which she spoke in detail about the government’s attempt to blackmail her. She wanted to expose, for all the world to see, the dirty tactics practiced by the Aliyev regime.

Ismayilova survived this episode, and more. During her 537 days in a Soviet-built prison, she lived with 20 other women who had been jailed for murder, drug-related offenses, and various petty crimes. 470 prisoners shared ten toilets and had to use washbowls and basins instead of showers. Medical assistance was available only during work hours, leading to two prisoner deaths in the last year. Despite these conditions, Ismayilova managed to get her letters published in international outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post by smuggling them out. Following one such instance, she was put in solitary confinement while her cell was searched and all her notes confiscated.

Ismayilova’s high profile has enabled her to attract attention that other prisoners can’t — so she’s used her prominence to draw attention to their plight as well.

In an interview with RFE/RL after her release, Ismayilova reminded her listeners that the government of Azerbaijan operates its prisons according to the “revolving door principle,” releasing prisoners one day only to arrest more. A youth activist and a photojournalist were detained the very same day Ismayilova was released. Some weeks prior, two youth activists were detained and tortured. For her 40th birthday wish, she exhorted everyone who can to continue helping Azerbaijan’s remaining political prisoners, whether by sending them books, advocating for their release, or exposing the true colors of the regime. She also asked that former prisoners, whether political or not, be helped readjust to life outside the prison walls. “This is especially true for former female convicts, who face a different reality. The stigma against them is mind-boggling, and often it’s because they can’t adjust to a life outside of prison that they end up back in jail.”

Ismayilova herself is still not fully free. She is not allowed to leave Baku, and not all of the charges against her have been dropped. But she said she intends to keep working. “My work was published even when I was in jail. Now that I am free and have internet, nothing can stop me.”

In the photo, Khadija Ismayilova participates in a protest in Baku on Nov. 9, 2014.
Photo credit: Jahangir Yusif

Arzu Geybulla is a freelance writer, originally from Azerbaijan, currently based in Istanbul. She reports on human rights violations in Azerbaijan.

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