(WASHINGTON – February 23, 2015) RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reports that authorities in the country took several actions against its journalists today, continuing a string of attacks that began in December last year.
In a closed-door trial that was called suddenly on February 23, investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova was found guilty of criminal libel and fined 2,500 AZN ($2,417 as of 2/23).
The libel charge stems from accusations made in 2014 by an individual named Elman Hasanov, but referred to in reports as Turkoglu, who said Ismayilova defamed him in statements she posted on Facebook. Ismayilova denies the accusations, and said she published a document but had removed all names. These allegations were not among the charges against Ismayilova when she was sentenced to pre-trial detention in December 2014.
Neither members of her family nor journalists were allowed to attend today’s hearing, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reported.
Earlier on February 23, former RFE/RL Baku bureau chief Babek Bakirov was stopped at the Baku airport and prevented from boarding a plane, after being told he was under a travel ban at the request of the Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office. Bakirov was not informed of any charges against him that would justify such a ban. In September 2014, Azeri authorities had banned Ismayilova from leaving the country, which prevented her from testifying at a hearing of the US Helsinki Commission, in Washington.
In addition, a former freelancer for the Service based in Azerbaijan was taken today to appear at the Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office for questioning. Out of concern for his safety, the journalist has asked that his name and the subject of the questioning not be revealed. Twenty-six journalists and staff members associated with the Service were previously interrogated following a December 26, 2014 raid on RFE/RL’s Baku bureau by agents of the state’s “grave crimes investigations committee” in connection with a new law on so-called “foreign agents.” The same law was invoked to force the National Democratic Institute, IREX, and other organizations supporting civil society development to suspend their local operations.
Ismayilova, whose letter from prison was published in the print edition of theWashington Post on February 20, has reported extensively on the financial activities of family members of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. She wasarrested and jailed on December 5 on charges of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide, and has since been presented with additional charges to include embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Her detention has been widely condemned as part of a systematic, state-led campaign to intimidate and silence the country’s independent activists and journalists.
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, Internet, television, and mobile — reach influential audiences in 21 countries, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).