THE WORK of Khadija Ismayilova would be vital in any country but has been particularly courageous in Azerbaijan, the oil-rich sultanate ruled both before and after the Soviet collapse by Heydar Aliyev , who died in 2003, and now by his son, President Ilham Aliyev . In recent years, Ms. Ismayilova investigated the ruling family’s hidden wealth and unearthed evidence of how they acquired it through secret deals. Now, the potentates have struck back and moved to silence her, the latest example of how Azerbaijan has become a bleak dystopia for human rights and democracy.
Ms. Ismayilova, who contributes to the Azerbaijani service of U.S.-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been repeatedly pressured by the authorities. She was warned in a letter in 2012 to stop investigating connections between Mr. Aliyev’s family and business deals involving expensive building projects in Baku. She was summoned for questioning this year and accused of leaking government secrets to two U.S. Senate staff members she had met in Baku. In October, she was detained for four hours at Baku’s airport and then banned from traveling outside the country. Then, on Dec. 5, she was arrested and ordered held for two months in pretrial custody on patently trumped-up charges that she nearly drove a man to suicide. Back in February, she published a statement, titled “If I get arrested,” in which she declared that the only reason would be her crusading investigations. “The government is not comfortable with what I am doing,” she wrote. They have proceeded exactly as she feared.
An ominous backdrop to the arrest was the publication Dec. 4 of a bizarre 60-page manifesto by Ramiz Mehdiyev, Mr. Aliyev’s right-hand man, suggesting that the United States is plotting to overthrow Mr. Aliyev with popular opposition like that which erupted in Ukraine earlier this year. Mr. Mehdiyev complained of a “fifth column” of nongovernmental organizations working in Azerbaijan; he took a page directly from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s paranoia and his attempts to suffocate civil society. And the manifesto directly criticized Ms. Ismayilova, suggesting that her information was provided by foreign spies.
On top of all this, the longtime human rights activist Leyla Yunus remains in prison, despite international appeals for her freedom. A frequent critic of Azerbaijan’s poor human-rights record, she was detained in July on charges of treason. Her lawyers and friends say that Ms. Yunus’s health has seriously deteriorated . Her husband, Arif, has also been jailed, and they are among dozens swept up in a wave of repression by the intolerant Mr. Aliyev.
Azerbaijan has courted the West with its energy riches and took pride in being host of the Eurovision song contest in 2012. But all is not well along the coast of the Caspian Sea. Mr. Aliyev is not only crushing individual lives but trying to imprison the very concept of freedom itself. He should be reminded by the United States and by Europe that this grim ambition won’t succeed and will only hurt his country.