Europe

Khadija Ismayilova: A headache for Azerbaijan government

March 2014 file photo shows Khadija Ismayilova Image copyright AP

As one of Azerbaijan's best-known journalists, Khadija Ismayilova has made life difficult for the Azeri government for years.

She has homed in on businesses and offshore bank accounts allegedly linked to President Ilham Aliyev's family, and made allegations of massive embezzlement of oil funds by government ministers.

In 2011, a sex tape was published as part of a blackmail campaign against her - one of a series of challenges that would test her commitment.

Now she faces seven and a half years in jail for embezzlement and tax evasion following a trial that human rights groups say was politically motivated.

Determined

Born in Baku in 1976, Khadija Ismayilova's father was a high-ranking government official and her mother was an engineer.

Her mother, Elmira, has described how she excelled at school - especially in literature and music - and was unusually honest for a young child.

Image copyright Jahangir Yusif
Image caption Khadija Ismayilova's mother Elmira has been attending her trial

She studied Turkic languages at Baku university, where she developed an interest in journalism.

Ms Ismayilova went on to work as a translator, trainer and investigative reporter.

She has described how the assassination of fellow journalist Elmar Huseynov in 2005 made her more determined in her pursuit of truth.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In 2012 Ms Ismayilova was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award by International Women's Media Foundation in California

Ulviyya Asadzade, who worked with her at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Baku, remembers meeting her friend in about 2007.

"One day I was surprised to find red flowers on my desk, and on other people's desks," she recalls.

"When I asked who put them there, someone pointed to a young woman, a little bit overweight, with a white jacket on."

That was the young woman who would become Radio Liberty's Baku bureau chief.

'A good headache'

Ms Ismayilova had been working as an anchor for Voice of America in Washington, but returned to Azerbaijan to cover events in her own country.

Her colleagues speak of her as a demanding editor, with exceptionally high standards.

"She was a headache," says then radio station director, Kenan Aliyev, who hired her. "But she was a good headache - always pushing for better."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ms Ismayilova caused controversy by explicitly naming President Ilham Aliyev and his family in her investigations.

Ms Ismayilova presented a daily talk show for Radio Azadliq, RFE/RL's Azeri service, gaining popularity and notoriety with her no-nonsense tone, and became recognised as a leading figure in the national media.

"She doesn't relent on anything," says Drew Sullivan, who worked with her at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

"She's incredibly stubborn and self confident as a journalist. She's funny, cutting... someone who will hold court."

'International agent'

Ms Ismayilova's journalism has landed her a number of prestigious awards - but has also led to difficulties at home.

Government officials and pro-government media outlets have accused her of being "pro-Armenian" or an "international agent", with some newspapers making more personal attacks.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Activists dressed as police officers and President Ilham Aliyev (centre) stage a protest against alleged human rights violations

In March 2011, Khadija Ismayilova received a letter and photos showing her having sex with her boyfriend - taken with a hidden camera in her bedroom without her knowledge.

The letter ordered her to stop investigating alleged government corruption, or she would be publicly shamed.

She refused to give in, and the following week a sex video was posted online.

Her friends say she was deeply upset by the intrusion into her private life, despite remaining resolute.

But it may have made her better prepared for what was to come.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The assassination of Elmar Huseynov, a journalist and distant relative of Ms Ismayilova, drove her to tackle difficult and dangerous stories

Ms Ismayilova was arrested on 5 December 2014 - something she had apparently been expecting for months.

She was charged with incitement to suicide, an allegation she rejected. The man who brought the claim against her, a former colleague, has since withdrawn the complaint, and the charge was dropped.

But she was later also charged with embezzlement, tax evasion and abuse of power.

Prison

Apart from pro-government media organisations, no other journalists were allowed into the court room to cover the trial which began in late July - including those from the BBC.

She maintains the trial is politically motivated. But Azerbaijan's government insists the judiciary operates independently.

Prosecutors say the defendant attempted to disrupt the trial with petitions to the court.

While she has been in custody, investigations that Ms Ismayilova began into the business activities of Azerbaijan's ruling family have been published by the OCCRP.

And she has spoken out in court about "illegal activities and corruption" in prisons.

"Prisoners are not getting the meat and cheese that they are entitled to. It would be better if prosecutors investigated this," she announced.

Her ex-boss, Kenan Aliyev, says this is characteristic of the "extraordinary, difficult woman" who has continually "hounded" the government.

Her supporters do not expect her to stop now.

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