Khadija Ismayilova is an Azerbaijani journalist.
This weekend, the Formula 1 European Grand Prix will run through the beautiful streets of Old Baku, in the heart of the Azerbaijani capital. The thought of a collision during the race fills me with dread.
The likes of Pharrell Williams, Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias were slated to entertain race fans, helping to promote the ruling Aliyev family’s projection of my country as a happy, normal nation.
But Azerbaijan is a country that runs on corruption. Officials can be bought and sold, blind eyes can be turned and crimes can be overlooked if the price is right. The only thing you can’t buy is freedom of speech.
In September 2015, I was sentenced to 7½ years’ imprisonment on various charges, including embezzlement and tax evasion (I had already spent just under nine months in “pretrial detention”). The charges were false but acutely ironic: The real reason I was in jail was that, as a journalist, I had investigated these same crimes by the Aliyev family.
In jail, I met a woman who had, for years, smuggled heroin between Iran and Azerbaijan. She ended up doing this because her husband had been ill and the hospitals had demanded bribes to treat him — “Breaking Bad,” Caucasus-style. She had been caught several times but managed to avoid prison until now. As we talked, I asked whether she ever felt like protesting against prison conditions or the corruption that led her to smuggle drugs. She said she had not. She was afraid. But she was brave enough to smuggle heroin? “When you deal drugs,” she said, “you can usually bribe someone and be freed. But if you protest, no bribe will get you out.”
She was right. Money can buy criminals freedom or fewer years in prison. Political prisoners are not able to make these deals.
But certain offers are made.
My currency in prison could have been my silence. Basic rights would be granted to me in return for my promise to stop writing. I didn’t agree and continued writing even from prison. Publication of my articles resulted in searches, interrogation and even more restrictions on my communications. Before and after every meeting with my lawyers and family, I was strip-searched. Every single note and piece of paper from these meetings was scrutinized, despite legal guarantees of confidentiality.
When I was asked whether I would agree to have my family members or lawyers write an appeal to the president asking for my release, I said no. It would be, to put it in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, “participation in the lie.” I didn’t want to be part of the repression machine.
My release, which finally occurred in May, was the result of an international, public campaign, carried out by various organizations. But I was just one of dozens of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Many others still remain. Among them is Seymur Hezi, a journalist for the Azadliq newspaper and presenter of “Azerbaijan Hour,” a satellite TV show. He was framed for “hooliganism.” Opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov has been jailed since 2013. Blogger Ilkin Rustemzade is in jail because of protests he organized in 2013.
What these cases all have in common is that the authorities are terrified of things they cannot control.
They are desperate to put forward the image of Azerbaijan as a liberal, pluralistic country. With the same irony that led to me being charged with embezzlement, they try to bolster their liberal credentials by locking up those who question them.
Meanwhile, they spend money the country doesn’t have (falling oil prices have dramatically affected incomes) on international sporting mega-events with which they aim to dazzle the world.
I wonder whether Pharrell Williams and the other entertainers in Baku this weekend for the Grand Prix will pause to ask ordinary Azerbaijanis whether they are happy, or whether they want to see such prestige events in a country that has failed to establish a basic medical insurance system for its citizens.
Or maybe they don’t ask, because they know most Azerbaijanis are not used to expressing their opinions, for fear that no money would buy them freedom if they did. Maybe those whose freedom is at risk cannot question this regime, but Iglesias, Brown and Williams can — if only so they don’t have to participate in the lie.