The Aug. 25 encounter between Ismayilova and Merkel laid bare the contrasting sides of tiny, oil-rich and strategically placed Azerbaijan.
To rights advocates, President Ilham Aliyev’s government is one of the world’s most repressive for journalists, activists and others. To leaders such as Merkel, Azerbaijan is a coveted friend for its vast Caspian Sea oil resources.
The meeting also was another step in Ismayilova’s evolution into international activism and in her role as a mentor to a new generation of journalists facing many challenges.
“I told [Merkel] about arbitrary arrests, torture, people being killed in custody of law enforcement,” Ismayilova said. “I told her of the risks we take as journalists that is also shared by our lawyers who are disbarred for defending us.”
Aliyev’s crackdowns are unlikely to keep Germany and others from doing business with Azerbaijan.
The country’s oil reserves and its location between Russia and Iran make it an attractive economic and military partner to Europe, the United States and Israel.
Merkel’s primary goal in Baku was to discuss a possible oil pipeline from the Caspian to Europe — not to probe well-documented rights abuses.
“Having oil has been the curse of Azerbaijan. . . . In Azerbaijan, it’s always about oil and never about reforms,” said Ismayilova, 42.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan ranks among the top countries for jailing members of the media. Nine journalists are among Azerbaijan’s 158 detainees described by rights groups as political prisoners, according to Amnesty International and other watchdog organizations.
The Aliyev government also has disbarred many of the country’s human rights lawyers and blocked independent news websites.
Aliyev defended his government at a news conference with the German chancellor. “All democratic institutions exist in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Ismayilova carries a very different message.
“I hate that I have to do all this activism,” said Ismayilova, who was released from prison two years ago. The charges of financial crimes were widely believed to be retaliation for documenting how Aliyev and his family have allegedly enriched themselves with public funds.
“When you report about corruption and no political change comes, you have to do more,” she added.
Earlier, in 2012, a blackmail video of her having sex with her then-boyfriend surfaced on pro-government websites. Muslim women have been killed for shaming their families by having sex before marriage. When a close family member learned of the videotape, he was so angry he brought a knife to confront her.
“He reacted like all men here would react,” Ismayilova said. “He was about to kill me.”
Another journalist calmed him down. Instead of going into hiding, as many women might have, Ismayilova spoke out about the blackmail.
“I would rather be doing journalism. When we had enough lawyers, when we had enough institutions that could respond, I didn’t do activism. But now that we don’t have them, I have to do something,” she continued.
This summer, Ismayilova organized a march marking the 100th anniversary of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The next day, police arrested several participants. Ismayilova helped collect 600 signatures demanding their release.
She then began investigating the government’s abduction and jailing of her friend and former attorney, Emin Aslanov.
Ismayilova said she is often followed by plainclothes police officers. The government has frozen her bank accounts; she is not allowed to leave the country — even when her mother was dying of cancer this spring in Turkey.
She appears regularly in court in Baku, still fighting tax-evasion charges against her and her former employer, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
At the same time, she has nine cases pending in the European Court of Human Rights against Azerbaijan. She won her first case in that court last year and was awarded compensation, court documents show. But she claims Azerbaijan has paid only a fraction.
Ismayilova’s 537 days in prison have left her with an unrelenting sense of responsibility to those behind bars. She collects books and clothes for imprisoned activists and journalists and cooks their favorite meals. She visits their families, arranges lawyers for them and often speaks out against the government.
After being unable to sleep in prison, where the lights were always on, Ismayilova rarely gets more than five hours of rest a night. And she often dreams about prison life.
She remembers the tar-like odors from oil waste dumped near the prison and the stench from toilets that accommodated upward of 40 prisoners each.
In prison, she read books and translated the novel “Children of the Jacaranda Tree,” about a child born in an Iranian prison. Since her release, however, she finds it impossible to become engrossed in a long story.
“Whenever I read a book, I feel like I’m in prison because that’s what I did there,” she said. “I can’t watch movies. I can’t concentrate. Other things seem more meaningful right now.”
Since her release, Ismayilova no longer reports daily stories, instead focusing on long-term investigations. She also lends her name to stories that other journalists have largely reported to protect them. She makes inquiries on behalf of other reporters so that the government does not know their identities.
One afternoon, two female journalists, ages 21 and 25, visited her apartment. Ismayilova gave them hugs and kisses and spooned out plates of food.
The women, she said, often refuse to stop filming when they cover news events and are threatened. “They always end up in a police station,” Ismayilova said. “They are not afraid.”
“Azerbaijan is not North Korea,” said Rob Denis, an American based in Tbilisi, Georgia, who translates Azeri stories into English for the independent news outlet Meydan TV. “I’m sure the government knows most, if not all, of who our people are. Yet, they let them keep going, and every once in a while, they arrest someone. It keeps everyone in a state of uncertainty.”
Ismayilova is hopeful that a “fearless” younger generation of journalists and human rights activists will force change in her country. In the interim, Ismayilova looks to Merkel and other European leaders to pressure Azerbaijan’s government to improve.
Still, she clings to the belief that one day, her reporting will have an impact: “My dream is that I will do a story and the next day, prosecutors will start a criminal case, and the corruption will be exposed, people will be arrested. Then I will know things have changed. And I will be really happy.”