LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A prominent Azerbaijani journalist detained on charges of inciting a person to attempt suicide on Tuesday dismissed the accusations against her as “dirty and black” tactics as a social media campaign mounted calling for her release.
Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is known for her corruption investigations and has been critical of the president, his family and some members of the government.
A court ordered last Friday that she be detained for two months pre-trial after a former colleague at the radio station attempted to kill himself. If convicted, she could face up to seven years in prison.
Her supporters were using the hashtag #FreeKhadija on Twitter to call for her release and a small group protested outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington as critics said her case highlighted a government-led crackdown on dissent.
Ismayilova, 38, told her radio station on Tuesday that the charges were fabricated and part of a campaign against her.
“I was expecting that the government’s nerves would fail them at some point,” Ismayilova said by phone.
Her lawyer Elton Guliyev said the ruling was “absurd” with no evidence against her. They plan to appeal the decision.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor’s Office was not immediately available for comment.
RFE/RL’s Editor-in-Chief Nenad Pejic said the arrest was the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence Ismayilova, who investigated government corruption, business dealings of the president’s family, and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
Rights advocates accuse veteran President Ilham Aliyev’s government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies. The West has courted the former Soviet republic as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas.
“The charges brought against her today are outrageous. Khadija is being punished for her journalism,” Pejic said in a statement.
Human rights activists said it was not the first time that Ismayilova has been targeted.
In a 2012 documentary “Amazing Azerbaijan”, which examined freedom of expression in the country, Ismayilova said she was sent pictures of herself having sex with her boyfriend in her apartment and told to keep quiet or be “shamed”.
But she decided to go public and a week later the sex tape was released online. Ismayilova said this just made her more determined to fight back.
Rebecca Vincent, a former U.S. diplomat in Azerbaijan, said the charges against Ismayilova were spurious and the latest in the authorities’ efforts to silence her critical voice.
“Her arrest takes place as part of a broader crackdown as the Azerbaijani authorities work to eliminate all voices of criticism and dissent ... basically anyone who refuses to take up the ruling party’s positions,” Vincent, now a human rights activist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic, says its 9 million citizens enjoy full freedom of speech and a lively opposition press.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith