The journalist who could not be silenced

Jail, threats and extortion is the price journalist Khadija Ismayilova has had to pay after exposing corruption all the way up to the President of Azerbaijan.

Khadija Ismayilova

This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades for other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades

Khadija Ismayilova is the leading and most award-winning of Azerbaijan’s investigative journalists, and she is not afraid to report the truth in the corruption-prone oil-rich country. For this she has paid a high price.

Years before the leak of the Panama Papers and reports of bribery in the Council of Europe; Khadija revealed corruption and financial abuse among senior officials which went all the way up to President Ilham Aliyev and his family members.

This was the start of several years of harassment, threats, surveillance and blackmail, attempting to silence her, both personally and professionally. In 2012, she received screenshots of video clips, taken with a secret camera hidden in her bedroom, capturing her with her boyfriend. Attached was a letter containing threats of “public humiliation”, if she did not “behave”. Khadija refused to give in to the blackmail, and the videos were leaked on the internet. Khadija asked the authorities to investigate the breach of her privacy, but no serious investigation was initiated.

Clearing the country from rubbish 

Despite being targeted in a comprehensive smear campaign, Khadija could not be silenced. In January 2013, she was one of many protesters arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest in Baku. Khadija, who claimed she had not broken the law, refused to pay the fine, and was sentenced to 220 hours community service by a local court. The punishment, to sweep the streets, was something she did not mind, as she was used to “clear the country from rubbish”. Soon, many of her supporters joined her in the cleaning.

It did not take long before Khadija again was in the spotlight of the authorities and the police. In 2015, she was arrested and charged with encouraging a colleague to commit suicide. The charge was soon expanded to include tax evasion and abuse of power, a pretty common indictment against human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. The arrest and charges sparked protests from international human rights organizations, claiming that the charges clearly were politically motivated. She was nevertheless sentenced to seven and a half year in prison.

Khadija vs. Azerbaijan 

In January 2019, Khadija finally won a clear victory in Khadija vs. Azerbaijan. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Azerbaijani authorities violated her freedom of expression and that they failed to investigate the private threats and harassment that Khadija had been exposed to since 2012. The court states in its ruling that it in particular took note of reports of “persecution of journalists in Azerbaijan and the impunity for the perpetrators”.

Khadija has received several international awards for her work. Today she is out of prison, but the court has still not dropped the charges against her, and she is therefore not allowed to leave the country. She continues to write and to fight for a more open and freer Azerbaijan.

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Hilde Sandvær

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