During a visit to Baku, Azerbaijan in August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with a prominent journalist. But Khadija Ismayilova wasn’t asking the questions — she was sharing an account of her own.
On Aug. 25, Ismayilova told Merkel of Azerbaijan’s crackdowns on political dissent and the media. Ismayilova wasn’t exempt; she was jailed for 18 months and is not allowed to leave the country, even when her mother was dying of cancer this spring in Turkey.
Azerbaijan is tiny and oil-rich. 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.
Those details are unlikely to dampen business between Azerbaijan and other nations. 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.
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, and she’s forbidden from leaving Azerbaijan.
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.
The effects of Ismayilova’s 537 days in prison linger. She rarely gets more than five hours of rest a night. And she often dreams about prison life. But she’s also left 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.
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.