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Investigative journalist accused of espionage as crackdown on Azeri civil society intensifies

Honoree Khadija Ismayilova speaks at the 2012 Courage in Journalism Awards hosted by the International Women's Media Foundation held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on 29 October 2012, in Beverly Hills, California.
Honoree Khadija Ismayilova speaks at the 2012 Courage in Journalism Awards hosted by the International Women's Media Foundation held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on 29 October 2012, in Beverly Hills, California.

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP Images

Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society and represents a gross infringement on the freedom of association and the right to privacy, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said on 21 February 2014.

The Azerbaijani ruling regime has made it a point to gather as much information on civil society representatives as it can with the clear ambition to suppress any form of dissent, especially in the wake of the 2013 presidential election.

"The IRFS is very concerned about the use of taxpayer resources to monitor innocent citizens. Using the big brother approach of monitoring personal conversations of reporters and activists is a blatant violation of Article 32 of the Constitution and is a total abuse of power," said Emin Huseynov.

In the recent move, the authorities made a secret audio recording of private conversation between Azerbaijani civil society representatives and U.S. congressional aides visiting Baku. The illegally obtained recording is now used by the government to back up absurd "espionage" allegations against an award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

On February 18, Ismayilova was summoned to Azerbaijan's Prosecutor General's office as a witness in a criminal case for revealing state secrets, several days after media reports accused her of spying for the U.S.

Ismayilova, an award-winning reporter who works for the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty and has exposed official corruption, faces charges of "espionage" and "revealing state secrets." A judiciary spokesperson claimed – when she was first summoned to general prosecutor's office – that she "revealed secrets relating to national security."

But Ismayilova is not party to any national security secrets. The real reason for her harassment is her vigorous investigations of corruption in high echelons of the ruling regime.

The conversation was held in a crowded restaurant, close to other tables, and with no attempt to keep the conversation confidential. "However if you had a reasonable expectation of privacy and someone surreptitiously recorded you, then this someone likely committed a crime (Article 32 of the Constitution) and should be prosecuted," said Emin Huseynov, who was also part of conversation in question.

Huseynov does not believe the video was recorded by pro-Aliyev MP Jeyhun Osmanli, who was at the same restaurant that night. Osmanli claims he made the recording in question and passed it on to the General Prosecutor. "We were about to leave when Osmanli entered the restaurant. The distance between our tables was 15 meters. The room was jam-packed, and Osmanli could not record our conversation by any phone," said Huseynov.

The bitter truth is, the secret recording could only have been made by law enforcement agencies through the use of a high quality audio surveillance device.

In recent years, illegal forms of surveillance have increasingly been used as a means to pressure critical journalists. Data gleaned through illegal surveillance has been used in blackmail attempts against journalists, or to publicly humiliate and potentially discredit them, should they choose not to cooperate with the would-be blackmailers.

Both the act of illegal surveillance itself, and the public dissemination of data gathered from illegal surveillance practices, constitutes a serious violation of the right to privacy, which is a fundamental human rights provided for in a number of international and regional treaties which Azerbaijan has ratified.

IRFS believes the "espionage" story is yet another attempt by the ruling regime to silence an outspoken journalist who is currently working on three groundbreaking investigations. At the same time, the regime seeks to distract the public from widespread corruption, a series of suicides, and other social issues in the country.

Finally, IRFS believes the "spy network" story, along with other recent worrisome actions, indicate that the government is setting the stage for a larger move against independent civil society by claiming they are part of a foreign plot to destabilize the country. The smear campaign against Ismayilova raised to new heights the probability of introduction of a new repressive legislation, similar to Russia's "foreign agent" law.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government to stop repressing human rights defenders, journalists, activists and other government critics. They must be allowed to carry out their peaceful activities without fear of reprisals, intimidation or harassment.

IRFS considers the current human rights situation in Azerbaijan alarming, and fears it will continue to worsen in the run-up to country's chairmanship in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, as the authorities work to quash any remaining criticism and dissent in the country.

IRFS calls upon the international community, in particular on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) the Council of Europe (CoE) Secretary General and CoE Human Rights Commissioner to pay careful attention to developments in the country during this crucial period and to increase pressure on Azerbaijan to fulfill its international human rights obligations. Now, more than ever, actions are needed, not just words.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Prominent journalist harassed again in Azerbaijan

    Ismayilova has been banned from leaving Baku without informing the authorities. She has not signed an actual physical travel ban, and she has not yet been formally charged, she told CPJ today. If convicted of publishing state secrets, Ismayilova could face up to seven years in prison.

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