On September 1, Baku court sentenced journalist Khadija Ismaylova to 7 and a half years in prison. Human rights organizations have called the verdict a revenge for anti-corruption investigations of the president while Azerbaijani authorities called such statements at attempt of foreign interference in the affairs of the state.
Within hours, the court’s decision reached the largest media around the world; it made news in BBC, The Guardian, Radio Free Europe, Time, New York Times, Euronews and other outlets which called the verdict politicized.
MYMEDIA made a review of the statements by Western politicians and human rights groups, and it also gathered the responses of the Azerbaijani authorities.
Reaction of the international community
The US State Department called for the release of Khadija and other political detainees and reminded the President Ilham Aliyev that not so long ago, he was the one who named the media freedom an integral part of the democratic principles, deviations from which were contrary to the values of Azerbaijan.
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland expressed his concern over "systematic shortcomings in the judicial system of Azerbaijan and the trend toward more frequent cases against human rights defenders and journalists which have a negative impact on freedom of expression in the country." He demanded the Azerbaijani government to make the details of the judicial finding as well as the evidence against Khadija Ismaylova public.
David Lidington, Britain's minister for Europe, called on the Azerbaijani authorities to review Khadija’s case in a transparent and just form, and reminded about Azerbaijan’s international commitments to respect the rule of law and improve the human rights’ situation in the country.
"The Council of Europe should suspend the powers of Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe and discuss the sanctions against those who abuse the law in order to put human rights defenders, journalists and activists behind the bars. Sanctions should include restrictions on foreign travel, " stated Florian Irminger, the head of the Swiss office of the Human Rights House.
Amnesty International called the verdict a "brutal punitive measure against journalists, political activists and human rights defenders", adding that the charges were fabricated.
OSCE also condemned the verdict: "Khadija Ismaylova is bravely doing her job of an investigative journalist in a country where critical voices drown out one after the other," said the OSCE representative Dunja Mijatovic. "This sentence is another blow to respect for human rights, commitment to the principles of democracy and the rule of law in Azerbaijan."
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, called the verdict outrageous: "This verdict confirms the intentions of the Azerbaijani authorities to distort the law for the sake of vengeance against its critics."
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the verdict, calling it a retaliation for the anti-corruption investigations by Khadija. "The trial against Khadija Ismaylova was a farce, but the consequences for her and other journalists are very serious", said the coordinator of the Europe and Central Asia program of the Committee to Protect Journalists Nina Ognianova.
The World Association of Writers and fighters for freedom of speech PEN International, whose award Ismaylova received this year, also appealed to the Azerbaijani authorities to release the journalist "immediately and unconditionally": "Khadija Ismaylova has dedicated her journalistic career to disclose the corruption in Azerbaijan. Her sentence demonstrates the tendency of the state to stifle freedom of speech," says Marian Botsford Fraser, the chairman of PEN International.
Nenad Pedzhyk, the chief editor of Radio Free Europe, called the trial of Ismaylova a "political and not legal": "At the trial, there was not a single proper process to all the charges against the journalist. The government simply decided to silence her at any cost. "
Reaction of Azerbaijani authorities
Official Azerbaijan condemned the reaction of the international community and called it an attempt to interfere in the affairs of the state of Azerbaijan: "We consider all of the attempts to interfere with Khadija Ismaylova’s case a politicization of the verdict, and we view such an approach as unacceptable and strongly condemn it," said Hikmet Hajiyev, the Head of the Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. "We also condemn the political statements against the court’s decision which was made solely on the legal grounds."
"Even during the trial against Khadija Ismaylova, there were attempts to politicize the matter and intervene in the investigation. Such attempts are treated as direct interference in the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” added Hajiyev.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly stated that the independence and the rule of law in the judicial system of the Republic of Azerbaijan are guaranteed. We must respect the decision of the court. Under the law, every citizen can file an appeal by the court," said the head of the press department.
Reaction of the prisoner
Khadija Ismaylova was arrested in December 2014 on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of her powers. The journalist called the accusations against herself ridiculous and baseless, and she said that the reason for the sentence was her journalistic activity.
"It was funny to face the charges of tax evasion while I was the one who revealed how the president's family was stealing the people's money and transferring it to offshore," said Khadija Ismaylova in the final speech at the trial on August 31.
Mother of Khadija Ismaylova says that both her daughter and she were prepared to such an outcome: "When the judge read the verdict, Khadija laughed. That’s my girl," Elmira Ismaylova wrote in a letter published by The Guardian.
She was not surprised by the government's desire to silent her daughter: "Her investigations uncovered corruption of Aliyev and his family. Moreover, she has taught many young journalists how to write about corruption. The authorities are afraid of her and try to silence her and anyone who dares to open one’s mouth. "