Award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova who reported extensively on high-level corruption has been sentenced by an Azerbaijan court to seven and a half years in prison.
A day before the verdict was announced the contributor to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) called Azerbaijan’s government a “repression machine” at the close of her trial on corruption charges, dismissing her trial as a “scam” aimed to silence her.
Ismayilova’s lawyer said the defense will appeal the verdict.
Before she was cut off without finishing her remarks, Ismayilova told the court that her reporting proved President Ilham Aliyev had “squandered [the] state budget and his family members were direct beneficiaries.”
Her investigative work has probed the alleged vast riches amassed by Aliyev and his family, leading to her arrest in December on charges including embezzlement and tax evasion.
BBG demands release
The Broadcasting Board of Governors [BBG] today expressed outrage and dismay at the sentencing, and called for her immediate release.
Representatives of the BBG, the U.S. agency that oversees RFE/RL and Voice of America, had contacted Azerbaijani officials to protest her incarceration.
“We are appalled by today’s verdict,” said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. “This sentence is clearly retribution for Khadija exposing government corruption and sends a warning shot to other journalists in the country. By passing down this verdict, the Azeri government has demonstrated to the international community that it disdains press freedom, supports its own impunity and has little regard for human rights.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the sentence against Ismayilova, calling her trial “a farce.”
Ismayilova’s supporters say the charges against her have been concocted by a government anxious to silence one of the few voices of independent journalism in the oil-rich former Soviet country.
Ismayilova, who has won awards for investigative reporting on high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, said the charges of libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power are politically motivated retribution.
“Shame on you! What kind of a state is this? Even your cheap tricks did not work in building a criminal case against me,” Ismayilova said in the final statement, according to a copy of prepared remarks that was obtained by RFE/RL.
She was unable to deliver the last section of her statement – in which she was to thank supporters and wish the judge a pleasant vacation following the trial “without an aching and silenced conscience.”
Ismayilova vowed Monday that even a lengthy jail sentence would not stop her from speaking out, her lawyer, Fariz Namazly, told the French news agency AFP.
“They won’t be able to force me to stay silent, even if they sentence me to 15 or 25 years,” she said, according to Namazly.
She initially was arrested and jailed in December, 2014 on charges of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide — charges later withdrawn by her accuser.
A number of other journalists and activists have been imprisoned in Azerbaijan in what human rights groups say is an effort to stifle dissent.