The Azeri government has jailed a prominent investigative reporter known for her persistent coverage of government corruption, human rights violations and media freedom. Khadija Ismayilova, who contributes to U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested on Dec. 5 and taken into police custody.
A court in the capital Baku jailed Ismayilova, 38, in advance of a trial on charges she caused a former RFE/RL co-worker to attempt suicide, a crime that carries a sentence of three to seven years, according to the Organized Crime and Reporting Project, a U.S.-funded outlet. The 38-year-old will be held in pretrial detention for at least two months, according to the New York Times.
Prosecutors have accused Ismayilova of instigating the attempted suicide of Tural Mustafayev, a correspondent worked for her at Radio Azadiq, a news outlet owned by RFE/RL. Ismayilova may have been preparing to dismiss Mustafayev from his job, Reporters Without Borders said, citing people they did not name.
Ismayilova, whose work has included reporting on the business interests of President Ilham Aliyev's family, has faced frequent harassment by Azerbaijan's security services. In February, she was taken in for repeated questioning by police after she reported government efforts to spy on the Central Asian nation's opposition.
In 2012, after reporting on government corruption, she received a threatening letter reading, "Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.” It included intimate photos from inside her home taken with a hidden camera. A surreptitiously recorded sex tape of her was later released on the Internet.
Ismayilova's detention comes a time of growing tensions between the U.S. and its allies and Aliyev's regime. A day before her arrest, the Azeri government released a 60-page document outlining the West's intention to undermine the country's leadership and accusing RFE/RL of spying, according to Baku-based Radio Azadiq.
Ismayilova's detention was not unexpected. In February, she issued a statement called "If I get arrested" and posted it to her Facebook account.
"The government is not comfortable with what I am doing," she wrote. "If you can, please support by standing for freedom of speech and freedom of privacy in this country as loudly as possible. Otherwise, I prefer you not to act at all. I don’t want any private diplomacy for my case. I don’t believe in human rights advocacy behind closed doors."
Ismayilova has been lauded for continuing her work under such harsh conditions. She received the Courage of Journalism Award from the U.S.-based International Women’s Media Foundation in 2012 and Atlantic magazine named her one of 2012’s Brave Thinkers.
Press and human rights groups condemned the arrest. "We call on Azerbaijani authorities to stop gagging reporters through trumped-up charges and arrests, and immediately release Khadija Ismayilova," said Muzaffar Suleymanov, a researcher on Europe and Central Asia for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "The politicized nature of the arrest is obvious--an award-winning reporter is being harassed for her work in Azerbaijan."
Ismayilova's arrest comes amid a crackdown on Azeri journalists, including the recent jailing of Radio Azadiq's Khalid Garayev and the severe beating of reporter and human rights activist Ilgar Nasibov in August. Thirteen Azeri journalists and bloggers are currently imprisoned because of their work, according to Reporters Without Borders.