Ilham Aliyev's Family, Friends Cruise Aboard SOCAR Super Yachts
BAKU. September 4, 2015 (OCCRP.org): Friends and family of President Ilham Aliyev make free use of two luxury yachts worth US$ 59 million that are owned by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), the organization charged with managing the country’s oil wealth for its citizens.
That means the yachts deprive Azerbaijani citizens of about US$ 12 million per year in oil profits—the amount experts say such yachts typically cost to run. That’s in addition to the US$ 2,000 worth of fuel per hour that the yachts consume.
It’s not the first time SOCAR has been so accommodating to the Aliyevs. The First Family previously used SOCAR to register their US$ 25 million London mansion.
Former crew members on one of the yachts told OCCRP that Aliyev, his family and inner circle have regularly used the yachts, often when visiting glamorous destinations such as Saint-Tropez and Cannes on the French Riviera.
Three other former crew members told reporters for the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) that they were often sent on long trips across the Mediterranean to mislead media or just so the Azerbaijani VIPs could have lunch on the boats – at a cost of more than $100,000 in fuel.
BAKU. September 1, 2015 (RFE/RL): An Azerbaijani court has sentenced investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova to 7 1/2 years in prison after convicting her on charges that rights groups have called retribution for her reports on corruption involving senior government officials.
The Baku court on September 1 found Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL, guilty of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.
In addition to the prison sentence, Ismayilova, 39, was also barred from holding public office for three years and was fined $300 to cover legal expenses. The court found her not guilty on a charge of inciting an individual to attempt suicide, after the complainant withdrew his accusation.
Ismayilova, who has reported extensively on the financial dealings of long-ruling President Ilham Aliyev and members of his family, has strongly denied the charges and called the trial a "scam" meant to silence her work.
The verdict and sentence drew swift condemnation from colleagues, human rights groups, and media freedom organizations.
Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL’s editor in chief, said Ismayilova's trial was "an example of politics, not law."
BAKU. Augut 31, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Today, August 31, Khadija Ismayil read her final statement in court. The prosecutor cut her short. Here is Khadija Ismayil's full statement.
Dear court attendants, the court committee, which has turned into the observers of this hearing, and those who have taken the seats of the people who are genuinely interested in attending the hearing:
I am not sure what your intention is in holding this express court, but I think the repression machine is about to collapse. Surely, we can see this as a result of the collapse in the oil market, but there are other reasons as well. One of these reasons is us!
Many are familiar with the ability of Azerbaijan’s law-enforcement system to invent crimes. But for years the honest citizens of this country, its honest journalists (and I am not talking about the ones who have been kissing up to the prosecutor, of course), and its human rights defenders have been exposing the shame of our judicial system. They have forced the repression machine to cover its disgraceful acts with even more shame. The more lies that were exposed, the more they were forced to tell more lies. The prosecutor's office and the court employees had to resort to more dishonesty to cover their lies.
From the onset, this hearing proved that the “envelope salaries” of tax and prosecutor’s office employees do not fulfill their needs, and in an exchange for illegal privileges they are unable to even prepare a proper slander case.
WASHINGTON. August 29, 2015: Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist working for the congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been sitting behind bars in Baku since December and faces up to 19 years in prison.
With the number of journalists jailed around the world surging, a case like hers hardly seems like news these days. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, last year 221 journalists were locked up, an increase of 10% on the previous year and the second-highest number since CPJ began keeping track of such data in 1990.
But Ismayilova's case deserves special attention for what it reveals about today's authoritarians -- and us.
Today, the United States needs a closer fusing of its interests and values when dealing with authoritarians around the globe. Following such a path increases Washington's bargaining power precisely because the authoritarians come to see that they can't play one American interest off against another. In turn, such a policy also heartens those states who are paying the price for keeping their own turn to liberalism on track. And no less important, U.S. administrations reinforce their credibility with global publics who, rather than see policy hypocrisy on Washington's part, see an America acting consonant with its stated principles.
WASHINGTON. August 27, 2015: Ten government watchdog groups have called on House Ethics Committee Chair Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Ranking Member Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) to release the Office of Congressional Ethics’ findings regarding all-expense-paid trips to Azerbaijan taken by 10 members of Congress in 2013, according to a Wednesday press release. Earlier this month, the Ethics Committee dropped its own probe into the trips, cleared the lawmakers of wrongdoing and did not release the OCE’s findings.
“We are concerned about the committee’s unprecedented decision not to release the OCE’s findings in circumstances where the Members under investigation remain” in Congress, the groups’ letter reads. The Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Demand Progress, Democracy 21, Thomas Mann, the National Legal and Policy Center, Norm Ornstein, Public Citizen, and James Thurber all signed the letter.
“This decision is especially concerning because the Committee itself played a decisive role in approving the Members’ travel to Azerbaijan,” the authors wrote. The groups also raised questions about whether Dent should have recused himself from the matter after receiving contributions from individuals associated with the nonprofit network under investigation in May. OpenSecrets Blog broke the story of the contributions to Dent.
BAKU. August 26, 2015(RFE/RL): The trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan has been postponed until August 31.
On August 26, the judge announced her decision to delay the hearing after Ismayilova's lawyer, Fariz Namazli, requested a new trial, arguing that prosecutors had ignored documents proving his client’s innocence.
Last week, a state prosecutor requested a nine-year sentence for Ismayilova.
The request on August 21 came a day after the state's case against the 39-year-old Ismayilova was wrapped up during a closed-door hearing in Baku.
Ismayilova, an RFE/RL contributor who reported extensively on corruption in Azerbaijan, faces charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
BAKU. August 24, 2015 (RFE/RL): Public prosecutor, Ramazan Hadiyev in his statement on August 21, said “Kahdija Ismayil abused her powers as the chief of the AzadliqRadiosy Baku bureau. She thus violated Article 101 of the Tax Code by avoiding taxes and by signing service contracts also made others pay less taxes.
“And yet Khadija Ismayil considers herself innocent on all accounts. Aynura Imranova who was questioned during the investigation indicated she was an educated woman and that is would be impossible to force her into writing something let alone a false statement. Based on this, Aynura Imranova, when testifying in court knowingly tried diverting responsibility from Khadija Ismayil. This is why her statements should not be taken as evidence.”
“Another witness Esmira Javadova said since 2009 she has signed contract for service. Her income was 1,400AZN of which she only paid 4% of taxes as part of simplified tax plan. If however, she had signed contract of employment as opposed to contract for service (by independent contractor or self-employed) she would have to pay 14% of her salary in taxes. Ms. Javadova during the investigation said it was Khadija Ismayil who advised her to sign contract for service. This indicates, Khadija Ismayil deliberately created an environment for evading taxes. Later, when Esmira Javadova saw Khadija Ismayil during the court hearing, she rejected her earlier statements. I think it is best if we take into account her statement Ms. Javadova gave during the investigation rather than during the hearing.”
According to the public prosecutor, Khadija Ismayil must be sentenced for correction of behavior and reeducation. She must be deprived of freedom for 8 years based on the Article 179.3.2; 4 years according to the Article 192.2.2; 5 years according to the Article 125; 2 years according to the Article 213.1; and 2 years according to the Article 308.2.
BAKU. August 24, 2015 (RFE/RL): Police clashed with residents in the Azerbaijani city of Mingachevir on August 22, two days after a young Azerbaijani man was found dead after being questioned by local police.
Police used tear gas and sound bombs to disperse the crowd who called for the head of police, Alasgar Badalov, to step down.
BAKU. August 21, 2015 (RFE/RL): A state prosecutor in Azerbaijan has asked for a nine-year prison sentence for Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL.
The request on August 21 came a day after the prosecution wrapped up its case against Ismayilova, who is being tried on economic crimes charges she says are politically motivated.
The judge adjourned the hearing after the sentencing request was made, and scheduled the next session for August 26. The verdict could come on that day.
Ismayilova and international human rights organizations have called her trial politically motivated punishment for her investigations into corruption at the highest levels of government in the oil-producing former Soviet republic.
Ismayilova's mother, Elmira, said that Khadija laughed when she heard the sentencing request.
"My child has never done anything bad," Elmira told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "She has always spoken the truth."
Ismayilova, who has won numerous international awards for her reporting, has accused the court of rushing through her trial and not giving her or her lawyers sufficient chance to respond to the charges.
BAKU. August 19, 2015 (RFE/RL): A Baku court resumed the trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on August 19.
Journalists, once again, were not allowed to attend the hearing.
Several journalists brought helium-filled green and red balloons -- the colors of the Azerbaijani national flag -- tied on Ismayilova's photograph, and let the balloons fly near the Baku City Court for Serious Crimes, where the trial is being held.
Ismayilova’s supporters chanted: "Freedom to Khadija!"
BAKU. August 18, 2015 (RFE/RL): A Baku court resumed the trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on August 18, while her mother and sister doubted the court's impartiality.
The 39-year-old Ismayilova, an RFE/RL contributor who has won awards for her coverage of official corruption in oil-rich Azerbaijan, is accused of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
Rights groups and Western governments have echoed Ismayilova's charge that the case is politically motivated.
Her mother, Elmira Ismayilova, told journalists during a recess in the hearing on August 18 that the trial was "a lie from top to bottom."
She added that the court had already dismissed several defense motions.
"Khadija asked for an additional week to discuss the case with her lawyers. She also insisted that a man named Ramal Huseyov, who was officially registered in the case as a witness and whom she has never met, be invited to the courtroom to testify," Elmira Ismayilova said. "She also demanded that the hearings not be held on a daily basis so that her right to a daily, two-hour walk outside her cell or the courtroom could be respected. Basically, all her motions were rejected by the judge."
BAKU. August 14, 2015: The official publication of the parliament of Azerbaijan, the newspaper "Azerbaijan", published an article titled“The Washington Post and The Guardian violate ‘armistice’ between Azerbaijan and the US and West.” The article has been published by a newspaper which reflects the official position of the Azerbaijani government and here is what it claims: The article claims that there is a tacit arrangement between the US, some Western European countries and the Azerbaijani government to ensure that the US and Western Europe would turn a blind eye on the ongoing crackdown on the civil society in Azerbaijan, refrain from criticizing Azerbaijan's human rights records in return securing Azerbaijani government's good grace and cooperation on the energy issues. The article voices a complaint that the West is not doing enough to silence the critical statements directed against the Azerbaijani government's human rights records and that notably two major news media outlets - the Washington Post and the Guardian - violate the established arrangement between the US government, Western European governments and Azerbaijan. Below is the full text of the article as it has been translated into English and re-posted by APA, another news media outlet controlled by the Azerbaijani government:
Baku – APA. “Azərbaycan” newspaper has published V.Alibayli`s article headlined “The Washington Post and The Guardian violate ‘armistice’ between Azerbaijan and the USA and West”, APA reports quoting AZERTAC.
The article says: “The facts show that The Washington Post and The Guardian are indeed violating “an armistice” between Azerbaijan and the United States and West. After the visit to Azerbaijan by Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs at the U.S. Department of State Amos Hochstein on 11 July 2015, it seemed like Washington wants to remove coldness in its relationship with Baku by extending a hand of peace. What gave real grounds for optimism was Mr Hochstein`s statements that the USA will support Azerbaijan. This optimism was boosted when Chief of General Staff of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, Colonel General Najmaddin Sadikov had a meeting with the US Military Attache to Azerbaijan on July 14 and the Ministry of Defence expressed its readiness to continue cooperation with the Pentagon and NATO.
BAKU. August 13, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Today, August 13, Baku Court of Grave Crimes held its final hearing in the case of prominent rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus.
Leyla Yunus was sentenced to 8 years and 6 months, while Arif Yunus was sentenced to 7 years.
Following the sentence Azadliq Radiosu spoke to the lawyer Afgan Mammadov. He said he was hoping for acquittal from today's court. "Surely, we knew they will be jailed. This is why both Leyla and Arif were ready for jail. The final verdict was the same indictment, nothing changed" said Mammadov.
The couple was originally charged with fraud, illegal entepreneurship, tax evasion and forgery. In addition, there is a separate charge of treason as well.
Following the sentence the judge also announced the court decision to confiscate the couple's property and all of their savings in their bank accounts.
PRAGUE. August 12, 2015 (OCCRP.org): It’s hard to steal billions and cover your tracks.
In Azerbaijan, a small coterie has done its best, registering businesses in relatives’ names and scattering assets among dozens of offshore companies.
But in today’s digital world, it’s virtually impossible to leave no footprints.
For months, reporters for OCCRP have painstakingly untangled the connections between obscure companies and unknown individuals across the globe, following each thread back to its source: the clique surrounding the First Family of Azerbaijan.
BAKU. August 10, 2015 (RFE/RL): The trial in Baku of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has continued in Baku with testimony from the man the authorities say she pushed to attempt suicide.
Also on August 10 the trial of two prominent Azerbaijani human rights activists was postponed until August 13 at the request of one of the defendants.
Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, was detained in December 2014 on charges of inciting former colleague Tural Mustafayev to commit suicide. Prosecutors later charged her with embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
On August 10, Mustafayev said he suffered a nervous breakdown in the past due to differences with his fiancee and that Ismayilova had nothing to do with his suicide attempt.
On July 24, Mustafayev told a preliminary hearing that he had "defamed" Ismayilova under pressure from law enforcement agencies, but a defense motion to dismiss the charge was rejected.
Ismayilova, 39, has reported extensively on the financial dealings of President Ilham Aliyev -- who has tolerated little dissent and shrugged off Western criticism since he succeeded his father as president in 2003 -- and members of his family.
August 10, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Rasim Aliyev remembered at the trial of Khadija Ismayil
On August 10, journalist Rasim Aliyev was remembered outside the court room where Khadija Ismayil's hearing continued. Journalists and friends took a minute of silence remembering the journalist.
In addition, the Ministry of Health is investigating the cuase of death. In a press statement to Trend outlet, the spokesperson for the Ministry said, the cause of death will be known following the thorough examination by forensics and pathology unit.
"On August 8 at around 18.00 Rasim Aliyev was beaten by a group of unknown men in Bayil settlement of Sabail district. He was then placed into a hospital with severe and multiple body injuries. He died August 9 at around 05.00 as a result of sustained injuries.
BAKU. August 7 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova went on trial on August 7 in a packed courtroom in Baku, facing charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power that she says are politically motivated punishment for her dogged reporting.
Dozens of activists, journalists, and some members of the diplomatic corps -- eager to monitor the trial of a journalist who has reported extensively on official corruption in tightly controlled, oil-rich Azerbaijan -- were unable to get inside the courtroom.
The trial comes eight months after the arrest of Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL. Rights groups and Western governments have urged her release from pretrial detention, calling the case part of a persistent campaign by long-ruling President Ilham Aliyev's government to silence dissent.
Ismayilova's relatives were not allowed to be present in the courtroom, and journalists were also kept out. Aside from participants in the process, only some representatives of foreign embassies were allowed to attend.
After the session got under way, Ismayilova's lawyers asked the judge to let their client out of the defendant's glass cage during the trial.
The judge rejected the request, saying that it would be better for her safety to be kept inside the enclosure.
The judge also rejected a defense motion to drop the tax evasion charge. Defense lawyer Fariz Namazli said the charge was imposed despite the fact that a tax inspection was frozen in May, caling that "a sign of particular ill-will."
PRAGUE. August 6, 2015: Seven kilometers west of Moscow along the Rublyevo-Uspenskoye Highway, a three-meter-high green metal fence cuts through the cool pine forest. Behind the fence lies Mayendorf Gardens, a subdivision in the exclusive and secretive Rublevka community that is home to Forbes millionaires, State Duma deputies, and high-ranking public officials.
One of the homeowners is Leyla Aliyeva, the elder daughter of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who is listed in various records as either 30 or 31 years old. Experts told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) her property is probably worth tens of millions of given that the median value of current houses for sale in the settlement is US$ 37 million.
OCCRP has been tracking the first family’s wealth and the Dacha is just one of the many luxury mansions the Aliyevs own around the world despite Ilham Aliyev having only served as a public servant during most of his life.
WASHINGTON, D.C. August 4, 2015: The House Ethics Committee has dropped its probe into 10 members of Congress who traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan in May 2013 with oil industry money, according to a Friday afternoon press release. The panel passed a trove of documents it collected to the Justice Department for a possible review of actions by parties outside Ethics’ jurisdiction.
But even as the Ethics Committee investigated the matter, its chairman, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), received political contributions from local individuals linked to the nonprofit network involved in the trips. The donations amounted to $8,000 and were given on a single day.
BAKU. August 3, 2015: The trial of two prominent Azerbaijani dissidents was adjourned until the following day, after an ambulance was called to provide medical attention to Arif Yunus. Arif Yunus and his wife Leyla Yunus are prominent human rights defenders and civic organization leaders in Azerbaijan imprisoned for their anti-Aliyev regime activities.Both have been charged with a wide range of offenses from tax evasion to treason and espionage for Armenia.
LONDON. July 30, 2015: A group of international organizations including 89up, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Media Support, Pen American Center, People in Need, Platform, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) issued a joint statement expressing their concerns over the ongoing repressions in Azerbaijan on an unprecedented scale. Below is the full text of that statement:
A year after the Azerbaijani government launched an unprecedented crackdown on human rights, the situation in the country continues to deteriorate. The Sport for Rights Coalition calls on the international community to immediately and publicly condemn the government of Azerbaijan's actions and take concrete steps to support Azerbaijani civil society.
One year ago, on 30 July 2014, Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus was arrested and charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. Yunus, the Director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, was a tireless rights advocate, likely targeted for her work on behalf of Azerbaijan’s many political prisoners, and her call for a boycott of the inaugural European Games, which took place in Baku in June 2015.
Yunus’s arrest marked the start of a period of unprecedented repression in Azerbaijan. The human rights situation in the country has now reached alarming lows as the authorities aggressively pursue the very individuals who worked to defend those already targeted for expressing critical opinions.
On 2 August 2014, human rights defender and founder of the Sport for Rights campaign Rasul Jafarov was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
On 5 August 2014, Leyla Yunus’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and activist in his own right, was arrested, followed by human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev on 8 August 2014, on similar charges.
BAKU. July 30, 2015 (RFE/RL): A high-ranking member of Azerbaijan's opposition Popular Front Party has been sent to jail.
The Baku Court for Serious Crimes found Asif Yusifli guilty of fraud and forgery on July 30 and sentenced him to 7 1/2 years in jail the same day.
Yusifli's co-defendant, Rafiq Huseynov, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in jail on the same charges.
Yusifli, who was arrested in November, pleaded not guilty and called the case against him a retaliation by the authorities for his political and rights activities.
International and domestic human rights organizations, as well as EU and U.S. officials have expressed deep concern about Azerbaijan's crackdown on oppositionists, rights activists, and journalists in recent years.
WASHINGTON. July 30, 3015: Yesterday, July 29, the National Press Club presented its highest press freedom prize to jailed Azeri investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova has been held in pretrial detention in a Baku prison for 234 days on charges many observers link to her investigations of high-level corruption involving Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, and which could bring a prison sentence of 19 years.
RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic accepted the award on Ismayilova’s behalf, saying "Khadija is in prison because of her journalism...This award is an acknowledgement of her courage and her convictions, but it is also a call to all of us here tonight to condemn her imprisonment and demand her freedom."
Each year, the National Press Club presents its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards to reporters or others who manifest the values of a free press. Other recipients of the 2015 award are Austin Tice, who has been detained in Syria since 2012, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year – also on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
BAKU. July 27, 2015: Today the Baku Grave Crimes Court held a hearing on the case of the imprisoned human rights activists Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus. The outspoken human rights advocates and the Aliyev regime's critics Leyla and Arif Yunus are charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal business activities. The major international human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regard these charges as bogus accusations used as a pretext to punish the Azeri dissidents.
Turan News Agency reported that Leyla Yunus' lawyer Elchin Gambarov brought to the judge's attention that the courtroom doors had been shut and the local and foreign journalists, civic activists and diplomats were not allowed to observe the trial. The judge dismissed the lawyer's motion to open the courtroom doors to those who wanted to observe the trial. Arif Yunus' lawyer Afghan Mammadov petitioned to change the measure of restraint for Arif Yunusov, considering his poor health, but the prsecution opposed the motion and the judge upheld the prosecution's position.
Leyla Yunus called the prosecution team and the investigators in her case 'executioners'. Leyla Yunus had repeatedly noted that she had been beaten and tortured while in custody.
BAKU. July 27, 2015 (RFE/RL): A brother-in-law of an outspoken Azerbaijani activist-in-exile has been arrested on drugs-related charges.
Nazim Agabeyov, brother-in-law of activist Emin Milli, was arrested in Baku on July 27. Milli says the accusations are "bogus and absurd."
Milli, who is the director of the Meydan TV online television project, said that it is "a widespread practice" of the Azerbaijani government to "punish relatives, family members, and take them as hostages."
BAKU. July 24, 2015: Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova asserted her innocence during the first day of her trial in Baku, saying the charges against her of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power are politically motivated.
Ismayilova, who reported extensively on official corruption in Azerbaijan as an RFE/RL contributor, was ordered to return to court on August 7.
The jailed investigative reporter told the court during the preliminary hearing on June 24 that "[Azerbijani President] Ilham Aliyev has arrested me because of personal hostility" and "to hinder my journalistic activity."
Her lawyer filed motions during the hearing for dismissal of the case, substitution of pretrial detention with home arrest, and exclusion of some witnesses' names from the witness list.
None of those defense motions was upheld.
The court left unresolved another defense motion to allow a lawyer for RFE/RL to participate in the trial in order to defend Ismayilova against accusations derived from a criminal case launched in December against RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq.
BAKU. July 21, 2015: After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
PRAGUE. July 20, 2015: Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova made a name for herself uncovering official corruption in a country where criticism of the government is rarely tolerated and frequently punished.
For her efforts, the RFE/RL contributor has been secretly videotaped, publicly smeared, threatened, imprisoned, and accused of treason. This week (on July 24 -- changed from original July 22), after seven months in jail, she goes on trial to face charges of libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.
Ismayilova has claimed the charges against her are politically motivated, and her detention has been roundly criticized as evidence of official repression in Azerbaijan.
The journalist's work has clearly irked the authorities and other powerful figures in Azerbaijan. What and who, exactly, did she take on?
Ismayilova's exposés, written until she was put in pretrial detention late last year, focused on apparent nepotism within the highest levels of Azerbaijan's ruling establishment, including the family of President Ilham Aliyev.
BAKU. July 16, 2015 (RFE/RL): Jailed Azerbaijani human rights advocates Leyla and Arif Yunus will go on trial on July 27, a judge said at a preliminary hearing nearly a year after their arrest on what the ailing couple and their supporters say are politically motivated charges.
Leyla Yunus, 59, and her husband Arif, 60, are among several activists, journalists, and government critics behind bars in the Caspian Sea state, where rights groups say President Ilham Aliyev has assiduously pursued a campaign to silence dissent.
Leyla and Arif Yunus have been charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal business activities. The Prosecutor General's Office has said that the couple was involved in passing classified information to agents of Armenia -- Azerbaijan's neighbor and foe.
BAKU. July 15, 2015 (Azadliq.org): She looked pale and smaller. Standing behind the glass cage, was not the 59 year old rights activist Leyla Yunus people remembered. She has lost significant amount of weight too. It was also the first time, the couple have seen each other in almost a year. The two were arrested one week apart and held in separate facilities.
Today was the preliminary hearing in the case of Leyla and Arif Yunus.
The prosecutor dismissed all the motions raised by the attorneys. During the break, Leyla Yunus spoke to the journalists. She said both of them are subject to physical torture and intimidation. Mrs. Yunus added her husband might have cancer. However he has been refused any medical check up and so impossible to confirm. Mrs. Yunus herself said she lost vision in her left eye. "The last time I was beaten on June 20. This when I stopped seeing in my left eye completely" added Leyla Yunus.
Following the break, the prosecutors refused to grant Leyla Yunus her right to speak and defend herself as they read out the charges.
BAKU. July 14, 2015: Yesterday, during the cabinet meeting of his government, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev attacked the Western countries accusing them of attempting to dictate the terms of cooperation with Azerbaijan. Speaking of the Western criticism for the growing crackdown on the civil society in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev said: “Those (critical) resolutions are just pieces of paper for us. Therefore no one will ever implement them. Let the Azerbaijani people and the ones who drew up those ugly resolutions know it. No one can dictate to Azerbaijan."
The Azerbaijani president specifically dwelled on the resolution recently adopted by the Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, which criticized the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. “Who do they think they are?” questioned Ilham Aliyev. "Is the German Bundestag master of the world, ruler of the world, should everyone obey them? ... We don't want anything from them, while they, on the contrary, need our gas, contracts, oil and our activity in this region," Aliyev said.
Ilham Aliyev also said the leaders of the Western countries did not mean any of the criticisms for the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan and paid a mere lip service to those values. Specifically, after dismissing the human rights criticisms of the Western countries, Ilham Aliyev said: “Nevertheless, we have no problems with European countries in a bilateral format. And in many cases, I certainly talk about all these shortcomings during the meetings with the heads of Europe’s leading countries, they say: don't pay attention, they (those voicing the criticisms of the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan –ed.) don’t deserve any attention. We don’t pay attention, if we did, we would do what they say. No one will do what they say. These resolutions are just a piece of paper for us. Therefore no one will ever implement any of what they say. Let them know that. Let the Azerbaijani people know that and also let those who prepare those dirty articles know that. Azerbaijan cannot be talked to in a language of dictate. Azerbaijan can be befriended or partnered with. We are ready for that. And this is how we will proceed in the future.”
95 lawyers from 24 countries call for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. He has been in jail in Azerbaijan since August 8, 2014.
GENEVA. July 14, 2015 (Human Rights House Foundation): In a letter to President Ilham Aliyev, independent lawyers, barristers or attorneys-at-law, express concern over the sentencing of their colleague, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev: “We call upon you, Mr President, to immediately and unconditionally release Intigam Aliyev and rehabilitate his civil and political rights.”
After six months in detention on spurious charges Intigam Aliyev was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
“We identify with Intigam Aliyev”, the lawyers write, “because we believe everybody should have a right to a fair trial, just as he does. Yet, Intigam Aliyev’s trial was marred by procedural irregularities and violations of the right to a public hearing and the right to access the files and documents of the case.” In addition, Intigam Aliyev’s attorney managed to prove that he was not guilty of implementing projects without registration, which he was charged with.
All 95 lawyers express their sympathy for Intigam Aliyev, as a unique lawyer. Not only is he a teacher for a generation of young Azerbaijanis, but he is also an expert of the European legal system, one of the first Azerbaijani lawyers to utilize the European Court of Human Rights and the regional tutor in the Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals (HELP) programme of the Council of Europe.
BAKU. July 13, 2015: Turan News Agency reports that the preparatory trial in the case of the imprisoned journalist Khadija Ismayilova is scheduled for July 22, the day which is marked in Azerbaijan as the National Press Day.
Khadija Ismayilova is an internationally recognized Azerbaijani journalist, famous for her investigative articles about the wide-spread corruption in the Azerbaijani government, including the family members of the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev himself. Until her arrest, Khadija Ismayilova worked as a journalist at the local office of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, funded by the US Congress.
Ismayilova was arrested in December 2014 based on the trumped-up charge of causing someone to attempt a suicide. The alleged victim of this charge is alive and safe. This charge was brought based on the complaint of someone called Tural Mustafayev. He has since withdrawn his complaint making a statement that he had been forced by the Azerbaijani law enforcement officials to make that complaint. However, the prosecution still maintains that charge against Khadija Ismayilova. While Khadija Ismayilova was in pre-trial detention, the prosecution brought additional charges against her including embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power.
International human rights organizations recognize Khadija Ismayilova as a prisoner of conscience (Azeri Report).
BAKU. July 13, 2015 (Azadliq.org): July 13, Leyla and Arif Yunus were scheduled to appear in a court room to start their trial. However, the hearing was postponned until July 15 according to Azadliq Radiosu. No reasons for the change in date were provided.
A number of embassy representatives appeared in court including Kati Piri, member of the European Parliament who traveled to Baku to attend the hearing.
Leyla Yunus, director of Peace and Democracy Institute was arrested July 30, 2014 while her husband, Arif Yunus was arrested August 5 of last year. The couple is charged with treason, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, fraud, and forgery. -0-
WASHINGTON. July 9, 2015: Yesterday, July 8, 16 U.S. Senators addressed a letter to the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev expressing their concern about the diminishing space for civil society and the harassment of activists in Azerbaijan. The initiative, led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), highlights the detention of six prisoners of conscience who are facing long prison sentences in response to their peaceful activism: Anar Mammadli, Leyla and Arif Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Khadija Ismayilova.
Signatories to the letter also include Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Ed Markey (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jean Shaheen (D-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Below is the full text of the letter:
Dear President Aliyev:
We write with growing concern on the diminishing space for both civil society and the freedom of press within Azerbaijan. In August, a number of us wrote to you expressing concern on the rising rate of politically motivated arrests. Since that letter, which highlighted the arrests and continued detention of Anar Mammadli, Leyla and Arif Yunus, and Intigam Aliyev, troublingly Rasul Jafarov and many more human rights activists and journalists have either been arrested or barred from leaving the country. Moreover, we have heard reports that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Azerbaijan is a member, was ordered to close its office and that representatives from Amnesty International, an international human rights organization, are barred from entering the country. Even more troubling is your government’s efforts to stifle the freedom of press in Azerbaijan, as witnessed by the closure of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) office and the imprisonment of investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova.
WASHINGTON. July 8, 2015: Amanda Rivkin, an award winning American photographer who lived in Azerbaijan from 2011 - 2012 and had an opportunity to get to know Khadija and photograph her, spoke to Emil Guliyev from Voice America (VOA) about Khadija Ismayilova's arrest and efforts at home and abroad calling for her release (click here for the full text of the interview). Answering to the question whether she is satisfied with the level of the US pressure on Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija Ismayilova's release, Rivkin said "I am absolutely not satisfied with the level of official pressure being exerted on the government of Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija’s release because she remains in jail, while still publishing investigations, which is so fierce and inspiring I am simply in awe of her courage." However, in that same interview Amanda Rivkin said the following which is almost the verbatim repetition of what the Aliyev lobbyists say to justify the US support for the Aliyev regime and the US tolerance towards the human rights abuses of the Ailyev regime in Azerbaijan:
"Ilham Aliyev was and remains the consensus choice who has maintained his position by being one of the few things Russia and America could agree on. It was Ilham’s father, the former president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev who said, “Washington is the new Moscow.” There seems to be very little desire within Azerbaijan and among the Azerbaijani people for anything dramatic to occur politically within their country and without that domestic support for something resembling regime change, I strongly believe the US would be crazy and outright foolish to try. To this end, my conversations with people involved in the promotion of democratic values in Azerbaijan were working for much smaller things, accountability of low level officials, dialogue with the outside world, and youth activism, including with the pro-government group Ireli. Any damage caused to Ilham Aliyev and his government is therefore largely the result of a self-inflicted, self-fulfilling prophecy. The US government is well aware, especially in light of events in Libya, Syria and Iraq that this is not the moment to topple a secular, relatively stable Islamic country’s head of state. Azerbaijan is not Ukraine. To do so would be bonkers and likely pave the way for either an Islamic government or one that tilts full-scale toward Russia and her interests, if it isn’t installed directly by Russia."
Until recently, we pretended to believe that you are a developing democracy. Now, due to certain developments in your country, we will have to pretend to be mad at you for not being one. Hopefully this absolves us of any responsibility for your transgressions.
We will criticize you sharply, may even curse you out publicly. We will keep saying that we "stand with Khadija" and other dissidents. But don't worry, we will not take any real action against you.
In fact, we will keep reminding everyone "between the lines" that we don't want you to go. We will scare everyone with Libya, Syria and other disasters. So, sit tight and continue your crackdown - you are safe.
Actually, do whatever you can to suppress dissent. Otherwise, if too much visible discontent emerges, we will not be able to continue saying that "there are no significant forces for change in Azerbaijan" and justify our support for you.