We met this month at an outdoor cafe in a park in Baku’s city center. After spending a year and a half in prison—she was released two years ago—Khadija Ismayilova has three years’ probation still to serve. She is surveilled 24/7. She is not permitted to leave the country. Her mother left Azerbaijan in March for medical treatment in Turkey. She had been diagnosed with cancer, and it was there in Ankara this spring that she died. Khadija had requested permission to see her mother in those final days. She received a reply from authorities, two months after her Mom’s death, asserting that her application had been improperly prepared.
Khadija Ismayilova had been an award-winning investigative reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. She got herself into trouble by doing what journalism is supposed to do: hold government accountable. Such work is often harrowing. Khadija’s neighborhood is exceptionally difficult.
Azerbaijan is part of the Caucasus, the region situated between the Black and Caspian Seas, at the edge of Europe and Asia, which comprises as well part of Russia (including Chechnya), Armenia, and Georgia. The country shares borders with authoritarian Russia to the north and with theocratic Iran to the south. According to Freedom House, “corruption is rampant” in Azerbaijan, and the regime’s “extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years [has left] little room for independent expression of activism.” On its scale of one to seven, Freedom House gives Azerbaijan a seven for political rights, a score otherwise reserved for the likes of Turkmenistan and North Korea.
For Khadija, prison was not easy. Political prisoners are kept among the general prison population; in her case, alongside 170 female inmates, in spartan conditions (ten toilets in total). Many of the women had been convicted of drug smuggling and violent crime, including murder. During her time behind bars, prison authorities would often spread rumors about Khadija to turn other prisoners against her; one whisper being that Khadija comes from Armenian stock. The two countries are bitter enemies and have fought for years now over Nagorno-Karabakh, currently occupied by Armenia. In the midst of threats, intimidation, and worse—much of the behavior from all sides was really “quite nasty,” she tells me—Khadija says: “one must always remain calm, without ever showing any sign of weakness.” Khadija took up causes for her fellow incarcerated, lobbying, for example, that authorities provide women with hygiene supplies for their periods.
Out of prison Khadija has become mentor to a growing network of fearless young reporters, most of them women. Their method is investigative journalism; their principal target, the nepotism and corruption of the First Family and their cronies. Their goal: to open up to public scrutiny the kleptocratic system and culture that has thrived under the country’s President Ilham Aliyev. It was Khadija’s reporting on offshore accounts, a Panamanian mining company, a prominent Azerbaijani bank, and airline services all owned by President Aliyev’s wife and daughters that first got her in hot water. Aliyev’s 11-year-old son, Khajda’s research revealed in 2010, owned real estate in the United Arab Emirates estimated to be worth $44 million.
The conflict between Khadija and the regime is a fundamental one. In autocracies, journalism is to serve the governors, not the governed. A 2012 law passed by Azerbaijan’s rubber stamp Parliament made it illegal to reveal details of company ownership unless by court order or by police investigation. On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Azerbaijan ranks 122 out of 180 countries, behind places like Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Ecuador.
Khadija has won considerable international recognition for her work, including a prestigious PEN Award, an Anna Politkovskaya award (after the slain Russian journalist), and the Right Livelihood Award in Sweden, often referred to as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” Were she able to leave the country she could easily find a perch, and an opportunity to continue her work. I prod her about a possible campaign to get her out. “But what kind of signal would that send to younger people,” she tells me, “if I escaped to the safety of the West?” Is she safe in Baku? “I never walk alone at night,” she says, though adding: “ I also get greeted warmly by strangers; there are cab drivers who, when they recognize me in the back of their taxis, will refuse to let me pay the fare.” We spent four and a half hours sitting together outside over pizza and mineral water. Twice men approached our table to shake Khadija’s hand.
Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves, and the fact that the country sits between Russia and Iran, typically gives foreign policy realists grounds to dismiss people like Khadija in the name of stability. Indeed, when I met President Aliyev in 2009—I had traveled to Baku as CEO of RFE/RL to urge his government to stop threatening our journalists—the Azerbaijani leader was quick to point out the security and energy partnership his country enjoys with the United States. Khadija argues that Aliyev’s corrupt and authoritarian ways make the regime inherently unstable. She points to things like a proliferation of stores selling wine on the one hand, and religious material on the other—Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country with the world’s second largest Shi‘a population after Iran—as indication that growing numbers are fed up with the deep pattern of kleptocratic self-dealing.
We ought to know by now that matters like religion, history, and culture figure prominently in the evolution and transition of any country to democracy. Says Kenan Aliyev (no relation to the country’s President), a fellow journalist: “Pluralism and accountable government will take time and genuinely committed leadership in a place like Azerbaijan.” None of this is to say that we should fall for the folly of realism, however. “Courageous people like Khadija are crucial in showing the way forward, as inspiration to those who want freedom and as a rebuke to those who don’t,” says Aliyev, Khadija’s friend and former editor at RFE/RL.
I asked Khadija about the utility of “quiet diplomacy” to advance the cause of human rights. “It’s insulting,” she says.
Toward the end of our afternoon together Khadija and I are joined by one of her young charges, a petite, 20-something young woman, shy and modest in demeanor. This young woman had been taken by police recently for interrogation to a facility notorious for torture and rape.
“Were you afraid?” I asked. “Oh yes,” Khadija’s young associate tells me; “I just barely passed off my laptop in time to someone else.” She was worried about protecting her sources. I had meant something different.
“Share what you said when you were released the next morning,” nudges Khadija.
At this point the soft-spoken young woman smiles and says: “I told gathered media that the questions I was asked over night were silly, but the tea was quite good.”
That’s true grit. “Stay calm, never show signs of weakness,” is the mantra. It’s a humbling reminder to realists, and to anyone else inclined to write off human rights in a country like Azerbaijan.