The journalist who couldn’t be silenced

Jail, threats and extortion are just some of the thing’s journalist Khadija Ismayilova has had to deal with 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 of 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 foremost 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. This is something she has had to pay a high price for. 

Many 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, all the way up to President Ilham Aliyev and his family members. 

This was the start of a number of years of harassment, threats, surveillance and blackmail in an attempt 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 Ismayilova did not “behave”. Khadija refused to give in to the blackmailing, and the videos were leaked on the internet. Khadija asked authorities to investigate her privacy breach, but no serious investigation was initiated. 

Clearing the country for rubbish 

Despite being targeted in a comprehensive smear campaign, Khadija would not be silenced. In January 2013, Khadija was one of many peaceful protesters arrested for taking part in a protest in Baku. Khadija, who said she had not broken the law, refused to pay the fine, and was sentenced to 220 hours in community service by a local court. The punishment, sweeping the streets, was something she did not mind, since “clearing this country for rubbish” is something she is used to. Shortly after, it wasn’t only Khadija standing there with the broom in her hands, many of her supporters joined in the cleaning. 

Not long after, Khadija was again on the authorities and police radar. 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, an almost common indictment against human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. The arrests and charges have sparked major protests among international human rights organizations, stating that the charges are clearly politically motivated. She was nevertheless sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. 

Khadija vs. Azerbaijan 

In January 2019Khadija finally had a clear victory in Khadija vs. Azerbaijan. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Azerbaijani authorities violated the freedom of expression and speech and failed to investigate the private threats and harassment that Khadija had been facing since 2012. In its ruling, the court took “particular note of reports of persecution of journalists in Azerbaijan as well as the perception that the perpetrators of these acts enjoy impunity”. 

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

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Hilde Sandvær

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