AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT Ilham Aliyev has imprisoned nearly 100 journalists, human rights advocates, religious believers and opposition figures in the past several years, transforming his regime from a soft autocracy into one of Eurasia’s harshest police states. Few of those he has dispatched have shamed him as thoroughly, and as tellingly, as Khadija Ismayilova.
Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7½ years in prison on Tuesday after one of the farcical political trials that are becoming routine in Azerbaijan, a petrostate on the Caspian Sea. Her offense was a series of hard-hitting investigative stories for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty detailing how Mr. Aliyev and his family had corruptly enriched themselves at the state’s expense. On Monday, she delivered her latest coup: a scathing dissection of her own persecution.
As the 39-year-old journalist pointed out in her final court testimony, the charges brought against her were similar to those she has leveled against Mr. Aliyev and his family in her reporting: illegal business activity, tax evasion and abuse of power. The difference, she said, is that she backed up her allegations with facts, witnesses and documents, while the case against her relied on crudely forged statements and easily disproved claims about her relationship with Radio Free Europe. Not a single witness testified against her in court.
“I am more successful in this business of finding proof than is the notorious prosecutor’s staff,” said Ms. Ismayilova, who among other scoops revealed in 2012 that Mr. Aliyev’s family was granted the rights to a lucrative gold field. “They are unable to even prepare a proper slander case.”
Though she was prevented from reading her full statement, Ms. Ismayilova’s brave speech will be an inspiration to those Azeris who still aspire to see their country follow the path of emerging democracies in the former Soviet Union. “I won’t break,” she said. “Yes, I might be in prison, but the work will continue.”
“I think the repression machine is about to collapse,” she said. “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!”
The journalist’s prediction would be more likely to come true if Mr. Aliyev received less forbearance from the United States and other Western democracies, which covet the country’s oil and gas and value its relative independence from Russia. Incredibly, Azerbaijan remains a member of the Council of Europe, a regional organization that is supposed to be dedicated to promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Mr. Aliyev was allowed to play host to the first European Games this summer.
Ms. Ismayilova’s long sentence prompted an expression of concern — but not a condemnation — from the State Department, which called for her release but offered no indication that Mr. Aliyev or state prosecutors will suffer any tangible consequences for their repression. They should.
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