A court in Azerbaijan sentenced Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to seven and a half years in prison today, on charges of misappropriation and embezzlement, illegal business dealings, tax evasion and abuse of power.

International media and human rights organizations condemned Ismayilova’s trial and sentence, which followed investigative reporting she had done on corruption within the presidency and the first family of Azerbaijan. It also followed an earlier blackmail attempt that Ismayilova had faced down in 2012.

Dunja Mijatović, the representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, also criticized the sentencing of Ismayilova.

“The charges brought against Ismayilova and the trial are unjust. They constitute yet another clear signal that the authorities are continuing to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan,” said Mijatović, who called on the government of President Ilham Aliyev “to stop targeting journalists.”

“Khadija Ismayilova pays for her courageous work as investigative journalist in a country where critical voices are muzzled one after the other,” Muižnieks added. “This sentence strikes yet another blow to respect for human rights and adherence to democracy and the rule of law in Azerbaijan.”

Human Rights Watch described the prosecution as politically motivated and said the flawed trial followed a campaign to discredit the muckraking journalist.

Isamayilova was acquitted on an additional charge of inciting a former boyfriend to commit suicide.

“The outrageous verdict against Khadija Ismayilova shows the Azerbaijani authorities’ willingness to subvert the law to exact revenge against critics,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Her conviction and sentence should be immediately set aside.”

According to HRW, the European Union and its member states should mount a strong, unified challenge to the government over the state of human rights in Azerbaijan. “Such a response should include freezing negotiations on a new Strategic Partnership Agreement with Baku and taking action in other multilateral bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council, to censure Azerbaijan over its atrocious human rights record,” the organization said in a statement .

Before she was arrested, Khadija Ismayilova was working as an investigative journalist for Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Radio Free Europe’s Azerbaijani service. She wrote investigative stories about corruption and misuse of power by the government in Azerbaijan, and investigated businesses and off shore companies connected to Aliyev and his close family and friends.

Khadija’s coleagues at the OCCRP started the Khadija Project, which, according to Drew Sullivan, the executive editor and co-founder of OCCRP, will finish the investigative reporting she started.

“Khadija asked us to finish her work. As a friend and colleague, we felt a moral obligation to do so,” Sullivan said. “But more so, we wanted to show that if you attack the messenger for their message, we will simply send out a lot more messengers.”

“This one family has run this country almost its whole modern life. They steal outrageous amounts and the vast oil wealth is squandered while their people stay poor and ignorant. Meanwhile, his daughters carry $160,000 purses and they send yachts for three days across the Mediterranean costing a state company $250,000 so young Heydar can have lunch on the boat.

“If I put this in a movie, people would say I am exaggerating their callous disregard for the people. But this is real life,” Sullivan added.

“Money is power, and they steal it and control it to keep others in Azerbaijan from building a political base,” Sullivan told 100reporters. “But they must hide their money in the West because that is their taste, and we will always find it and expose it.”

In a closing statement before the court Monday, Ismayilova said that Azerbaijanis were familiar with the ability of police and prosecutors to invent crimes. The case against her was built on intimidating her accusers and alleged witnesses, one of whom was offered a bribe, she said. Some witnesses, she added, were pressured to sign statements without having read them.

“To accuse the person who investigated the presidential family’s stolen money stored in offshore accounts, their abuse of state deals and contracts with offshore companies and groups, of evading taxes was very funny,” Ismayilova said. “My students, my colleagues and I were writing about offshore realities, cases of tax evasion, companies on islands in their own names and companies in Azerbaijan under the names of others evading taxes.”

This is not the first time that Azerbaijani authorities have gone after Ismayilova. In 2012, the government secretly filmed the reporter having sex with her boyfriend, and threatened to release the video publicly. Ismayilova refused to back down. She instead went public with the blackmail threat. She further reported on the Ministry of National Security’s bugging of her apartment by interviewing the phone technicians involved.

The sex footage promptly appeared on the internet.

Following the incident, Ismayilova won many international media and press freedom awards, including the Courage of Journalism Award, given by the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Global Shining Light Award and the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, bestowed by the PEN American Center.

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, condemned the journalist’s prosecution as “ an absurd and outrageous political trial, a judicial sham that elevates this case into a symbol of the wave of persecution of independent media that began a year ago.”.

Ismayilova was arrested last December and accused of provoking her former boyfriend and colleague Tural Mustafayev to commit suicide. According to Ismayilova, the whole charge “is nothing more than slander.”

This April, Mustafayev reportedly withdrew his complaint in the case against Khadija.

In February, new charges were raised against Ismayilova for evading taxes, embezzlement, misappropriation and abuse of power, and the prosecution asked for a nine-year sentence for the Azerbaijani journalist.

Azerbaijan is ranked 162 out of 180 countries in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index for 2015. “The regime is in the process of silencing the few remaining independent voices that it has not already managed to suppress,” the report stated. “Outspoken journalists and bloggers are being given the same choice as human rights defenders – shut up, flee abroad or be jailed on trumped-up charges.”

Kristina Ozimec

Kristina Ozimec

Kristina Ozimec, who is currently a reporting fellow at 100Reporters, is a freelance investigative journalist from Macedonia. She writes about education, human rights, corruption, rule of law, civil society and other issues. Her work has appeared in Fokus magazine, Kapital, Deutsche Welle, Global Post and elsewhere. Ozimec holds a degree in Journalism and Communications Studies at the "Iustinianus Primus" Faculty of Law in Skopje, Macedonia.