BAKU. June 14, 2016 (FreedomHouse.org):The government of Azerbaijan released investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova from prison on May 25—583 days after she was jailed on trumped-up charges. She remains confined to Baku, the capital, but has resumed her reporting on corruption involving the family of President Ilham Aliyev. She spoke with Freedom House by telephone.
Freedom House: Why do you think the authorities targeted you for arrest?
Ismayilova: The government wanted to arrest me because it wanted to silence me, to stop my investigations. They wanted to prevent me from advocating for human rights and telling the truth. They put a lot of effort into this venture and brought several cases under different parts of the criminal code.
They finally had to release me because, in all the cases and whatever the charges, it was clear from the beginning that the accusations were false and entirely political. In the last case, the charges were chosen specifically because of the crimes I was actually reporting and writing about, crimes in which my reporting showed involvement by the government. They chose these particular parts of the criminal code—alleging embezzlement and tax evasion—because these were their crimes.
Other activists were arrested at about the same time as you, in December 2014. What was making the government nervous? Why did the government act at that particular time?
It was a long process that started long before the actual crackdown; it came step by step. They spent a lot of money on lobbying, and they put a lot of effort into silencing media, and then decided on a major crackdown to eliminate civil society on an institutional level.
BAKU. May 27, 2016 (OCCRP): On her first day of freedom, between CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and the Voice of America, Khadija Ismayilova made time to talk to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. She reflected on the experience of her 537 days in jail, the current situation in Azerbaijan and the Khadija Project, OCCRP’s response to her incarceration.
OCCRP: Can you tell us about the conditions in jail? Did you ever encounter any kind of abuse, either against you or others?
Khadija: I told myself I’m not spending my lifetime, I’m spending a prison term. So I’m not going to get older – the time that is spent there is not my life. So that was the attitude, and attitude is essential.
There were some minor problems, but my decision was that I will not complain about the conditions, because I don’t want people to be scared of the prison. That’s what the government wants, is for the journalists, activists, politicians to be afraid of imprisonment and stop criticizing the government…. There is nothing unbearable – as you see, I am full of energy. You can survive – and even more.
OCCRP: Can you explain the specific terms of your release? I understand you can’t leave the country, but can you travel at all? And are you allowed to continue with your work?
BAKU. May 26, 2016 (RFE/RL): RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova released from an Azerbaijani prison on May 25, said she was able to remain optimistic in custody, despite her ordeal.She spent 537 days in jail on a series of charges which international observers said were retribution for her investigative reporting on corruption connected to Azerbaijan’s ruling family.This week her sentence was reduced from 7 1/2 years to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years, and she walked free.In an interview one day after her release, she called on others to keep fighting for those unjustly imprisoned:
WASHINGTON. May 25, 2016: Yesterday, May 24, the US Senator John McCain was interviewed by the Azerbaijani Service of the Voice of America regarding the human rights conditions and the situation with political prisoners in Azerbaijan:
WASHINGTON. January 7, 2016: Amid its ongoing brutal crackdown against independent voices and western institutions the Azerbaijani government has long been urged to improve the country's human rights record to avoid an international pariah status. In a surprise move, president Ilham Aliyev's office announced on Wednesday that it had received an invitation letter from the White House to the Nuclear Security Summit, which will take place in Washington, D.C. later in March. The invite, according to the Azeri sources, was issued on December 3rd, just days before President Aliyev signed a pardon decree granting amnesty to more than 200 people, in which he refused to include a single political prisoner's name.
Officials in Washington didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. While it remains unclear whether president Aliyev is still welcomed in the U.S. capital, analysts like David Kramer, former president of Freedom House, believe that a good will and positive feelings toward Azerbaijani leadership 'have largely dissolved' among Washington politicians, amid Aliyev's refusal to release political prisoners last month.
'Presidents Obama and Aliyev had a short meeting in Turkey in November, and Aliyev, from what I can see, has not responded in a positive way on any democracy/human rights issues after that meeting,' he said.
In an interview with TURAN's Washington correspondent Alakbar Raufoglu, David Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, spoke about current human rights challenges and government-backed anti-West campaign in Azerbaijan, as well as its impacts on the country’s relations with the West.
Q. President Aliyev took to Twitter on Tuesday (Jan 5) and posted that Azerbaijan 'moves along the path of democracy and development...' In what direction is Azerbaijan really moving with its current human rights record?
A. It's hard to see that there is a forward progress in Azerbaijan on democracy and human rights. The political prisoners are the main focus of those who're very critical of the situation in Azerbaijan, but there are other issues as well, such as elections -- both last year's for parliament election, and 2013's for president -- have also been criticized by the OSCE and ODIHR.
WASHINGTON. December 29, 2015: Despite all the expectations both at home and abroad the Azerbaijani government on Monday refused to release a single political prisoner from jail in a pardon decree, while granting amnesty to more than 200 others. The government rather decided to jail another prominent journalist, Rauf Mirgadirov, on espionage charges that his lawyers and supporters call bogus.
The move comes just days after a landmark bill seeking sanctions on Azerbaijan was submitted to the U.S. Congress in response to the Western criticisms’ falling on deaf ears in Baku.
With so many independent voices behind bars and its deepening confrontation with the West, where is Azerbaijan heading to, under current political leadership?
TURAN’s Washington’s correspondent Alakbar Raufoglu interviewed Richard Kauzlarich, a veteran American diplomat (ret) and analyst, former US Ambassador to Baku and deputy assistant secretary of State, on latest human rights situation in Azerbaijan and the country’s relations with the West.
Q. Many analysts high light the failure of private/quiet diplomacy in present situation, while the government propaganda in Baku keeps pointing on western criticism, and hinting on their pushback against the latest calls for sanctions in Washington… What is the best language to use with the Azeri government at this point?
A. I practiced both quiet and unquiet diplomacy when I was in the Department of State as Ambassador to Azerbaijan and then, Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were times and places for a quiet diplomacy and time and place for other forms of diplomacy.
In this case, as we witnessed certainly over the past year that the United States has been extraordinarily willing to engage with the government of Azerbaijan – in a positive way, and in a quiet way – but that hasn’t worked. There were some high level trips to Baku, such as visit of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense and State, both have been out there in the last few months, and conveyed very positive messages. That has not worked either.
BAKU. December 28, 2015: Two days ago, on December 26, Robert Cekuta, the United States Ambassador to Azerbaijan, gave an interview to the Trend News Agency, a progovernment media outlet of Azerbaijan. Azeri Report reposts that interview below:
Trend interviews US ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta
Q: "Azerbaijan Democracy Act” caused for deep concern in Azerbaijan. Individual initiative of US Congressmen, of course, does in no way reflect the position of US Administration. But we have not seen the official reaction of United States Administration and respectively, US Embassy on that account. How you would explain this silence?
A: As the Embassy has said publicly, we do not comment on draft legislation. This is the usual practice for us because of the separation of powers within the United States system. The legislature – or Congress – is separate from the Executive Branch, which includes the President, the State Department and other departments (what would be ministries here in Azerbaijan), and the judiciary are all separate from each other, something that was set out in our Constitution. That said, I have seen a lot of speculation in local media that reflects a misunderstanding of our legislative process. Our embassy has provided an overview of how draft bills get introduced by a member of Congress, get reviewed, and considered by members of the different legislative bodies and so forth to our social media accounts, and I encourage anyone interested in understanding the facts to review that information.
BAKU. April 29, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Over the past years FIDH ( the International Federation for Human Rights - ed.) increased its work on the situation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. The focus intensified especially in the aftermath of crackdown of last summer. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Hugo Gabbero on FIDH’s recent visit to Azerbaijan and the organization’s evaluation of the human rights defenders situation in the country.
Hugo Gabbero: What we witnessed since the wave of repression in the summer of 2014 is that authorities strive to suffocate the last space of freedom and are progressively transforming the country into a giant prison for human rights defenders. So it is in the light of this situation that we (FIDH) decided last January (2015) to travel to Baku (January 4-8), to try and visit the human rights defenders in prison and to establish a dialogue with the authorities of Azerbaijan.
PRAGUE. April 3, 2015 (Azadliq.org): On March 31, Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch was barred from entering Azerbaijan. Giorgi Gogia came to Azerbaijan to attend the trial of two prominent rights defenders Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Giorgi Gogia about the 31 hours he spent at the Haydar Aliyev International Airport.
Azadliq Radiosu: How are you feeling?
Giorgi Gogia: Still trying to recover. It’s been an exhausting 30 something hours. But I am fine.
It was a frustrating experience. In the end it all ended fine although it is very sad that I could not be with Intigam and Rasul where I wanted to be. Clearly I could not do much but being there just of moral support to them.
BAKU. January 10, 2015 (Azadliq Radio): Azadliq Radio: Your parents are in jail for five months now. How are you holding up?
Dinara Yunus: These past five months were emotionally difficult and challenging for me. I have not been able to wish my mom a happy birthday, we could not celebrate my parents' 37th wedding anniversary, we couldn't celebrate the new year together, and now with my dad's approaching birthday I feel really down. My mom's mistreatment in jail worries me a lot. Having no news from my dad feels like he has been completely cut out of my life.
Q: When was the last time you saw your parents?
In person the last time I saw my mum was in fall of 2013, when she was preparing for an eye surgery in Germany. My dad I saw in November of 2013 here in Amsterdam. But we skyped often.
"The fact that the U.S. hasn’t responded in some kind of really tough way so far shouldn’t lead the Azeri government to think that it never will"
BAKU. December 30, 2014 (Contact.az): Despite its long-standing relationship with the U.S. and membership in Europe’s leading international institutions, Azerbaijan has recently intensified its anti-American campaign and crackdown against the western groups, as well as its use of the judicial system to punish civil society members and journalists. 2014 marked as especially bad year with Azeri government’s embarking on the biggest human rights crackdown in wider Europe, according to western observers.
Radio Azadliq, the Azerbaijani service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, became the latest victim of the government-backed crackdown when the inspectors raided its Baku bureau to shut it down last week and forcibly detained the staff. Baku officials claim that the move was “related to national security matters.”
In Washington, D.C. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathkeannouncedon Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to President IlhamAliyev on December 21, raising concerns about Azerbaijan's crackdown on civil society.Washington followed up about the actions against RFE/RL with senior Baku officials, Rathke said.
These developments also come at the time when oil-rich government is trying to spruce up its image by hosting the first European Games in 2015 and spending a sufficient amount of money for its lobbyism efforts in the U.S. and European capitals.
Has Azerbaijan gone too far this time in terms of its relations with the West?