Aprominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor has made a defiant closing statement in a courtroom in Baku, saying her trial on economic crimes charges has failed to crush her spirit or stop her work.
Khadija Ismayilova, who says the case against her is politically motivated, accused the court on August 31 of inventing the charges in order to send her to prison and end her investigations into corruption at the highest levels of government in the oil-producing former Soviet republic.
Speaking after a state prosecutor last week requested the judge hand her a nine-year prison sentence, she said she and like-minded independent journalists “expose corruption and lawlessness” and that “the work we do is very important.”
“We wrote, informed the community, even if the price for it was arrest and blackmail…I am still happy that I fulfilled my job,” she said.
Among her reports, which were broadcast by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, were an exposé in 2012 of how the Azerbaijani government awarded the rights to a lucrative gold field to President Ilham Aliyev’s family and a 2014 report on how, through a trail of shell owners and offshore registrations, Aliyev’s two daughters appear to be connected to Azerbaijan’s largest mobile-phone operator, Azercell.
Ismayilova, who has won numerous international awards for her reporting, said that the court had conducted an “express” trial whose outcome was predetermined and which was riddled with illegalities.
She said that testimony during the proceedings revealed that the evidence the prosecution presented against her was based on witness statements that “were either taken under pressure or signed without these people actually reading the statements.”
“One of the witnesses was offered a bribe,” she told the court. “Shame on you! What kind of a state is this?!”
Using her closing remarks to again rebut the charges against her, she called it ironic that the government has sought to prove her guilty of crimes such as tax evasion, embezzlement, and abuse of power when these are the very crimes she has sought to expose in her investigative reporting.
“To accuse the person who investigated the presidential family’s stolen money stored in offshore accounts, its abuse of state deals and of contracts with offshore companies and groups, and its evasion of taxes was very funny,” she told the judge.
She vowed that, if sent to prison, “I won’t break under a 15- or even a 25-year sentence.”
“I am going to have an opportunity to expose [abuses in] the penitentiary services,” she said. “I am one of those people who knows how to turn a problem into an opportunity.”
Ismayilova, 39, is among the most prominent of dozens of activists, journalists, and government critics who have been targeted in what rights groups say is a persistent clampdown on dissent by Aliyev’s government.
Since her arrest in December, Ismayilova has been kept in pretrial detention despite repeated calls by the United States and other Western governments for her release. Amnesty International calls her a “prisoner of conscience” and the Committee to Protect Journalists terms the charges against her retaliation for her journalistic activities.
Only some representatives of foreign embassies have been able to attend Ismayilova’s trial, which began on August 7. Independent journalists and activists have been barred throughout the proceedings.