European Court of Human Rights rules in favour of Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova
Counsel for Khadija Ismayilova welcome today’s judgment of the European Court of Human Rights finding that her arrest and prosecution violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Khadija was represented by barrister Amal Clooney of Doughty Street Chambers and Nani Jansen Reventlow and Alinda Vermeer of the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).
Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist who uncovered corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. As a result of her work, in December 2014 she was arrested on baseless charges, subjected to a sham trial and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison.
The European Court today found that Azerbaijan violated Khadija’s right to liberty under Article 5 of the European Convention because her arrest and detention were not based on a “reasonable suspicion” that she committed any crime. It also found a violation of Khadija’s right to be presumed innocent under Article 6 of the Convention because the prosecutor had referred to Khadija as guilty in a public statement before she had been proved guilty according to law. And it found that her arrest violated Article 18 of the Convention because it was carried out “for improper reasons” and that the actual purpose of her arrest and detention “was to silence and to punish [Khadija] for her journalistic activities”. As a result of these violations, the Court ruled that Azerbaijan must pay Khadija 25,000 euros in damages. Because Khadija’s release was secured in May 2016, two months after Khadija’s counsel filed their petition to the Court, the Court did not need to make an order for her release.
Counsel welcome this decision of the Court, which represents a complete vindication of the arguments made on her behalf before the Court. This includes their arguments that the true motives for the authorities’ conduct was to silence her journalism and that this constituted part of a pattern of persecution of journalists and other government critics (see paras 113-114 of the Judgment).
Counsel are however deeply concerned about Khadija’s continued persecution by the Azerbaijani government. Khadija remains on “probation” until 2021, a status that can be terminated at any time on vague grounds and converted into a 3.5-year prison sentence. She also remains subject to an unjustified asset-freeze and travel ban which have a devastating impact on her life. She cannot access funds in any of her bank accounts. Domestic media outlets will not employ her. And she cannot take payment from foreign-based media without being at risk of further baseless charges of “illegal entrepreneurship”. She is trapped: and the travel ban against her even prevented her from being with her mother at the time she passed away.
As was recognised by the Court today, Khadija’s persecution is also part of a broader campaign to silence journalism and independent voices in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has one of the worst records on freedom of expression in the world. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the media outlet Khadija worked for at the time of her arrest, was forcibly closed down by the government in 2014 and has been forced to operate from Prague. And in the past few years, more journalists and bloggers have been arrested for their work. Afgan Mukhtarli, a journalist who often writes about high-level government corruption in Azerbaijan, was abducted from the street near his home in Georgia, brought back to Azerbaijan by force and sentenced to six years in prison on an absurd charge. Prominent journalist Mehman Aliyev was arrested on fabricated charges after he rejected an offer from the Azerbaijani government to finance his news agency in exchange for control of its publications. Polad Aslanov, an Azerbaijani reporter who reported about human rights violations, was arrested in June 2019 and is facing a possible life sentence in retaliation for his work. And only last week, it was reported that at least 18 journalists were physically attacked in the course of their reporting about electoral fraud during parliamentary elections on 9 February.
In response to the European Court’s judgment today, Khadija Ismayilova stated:
“I want to thank my lawyers, Amal Clooney and Nani Jansen Reventlow, who litigated this case before the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the Media Legal Defence Initiative that supported the case. Thanks to these first-rate lawyers, I was lucky to get the best legal representation I could have had: their work was indispensable and it has set a new gold standard for human rights work on Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, access to counsel is becoming increasingly difficult for government critics in Azerbaijan. Yalchin Imanov, who was the leading counsel in domestic litigation associated with this case, has been disbarred for defending political prisoners like myself. Two other lawyers who represented me in the same case were also subjected to temporary suspension. I would also like to thank them for their impressive work, and for their sacrifice.
Having no access to an independent judiciary in our own country, we can only cast our hopes for justice on the European Court, so that those who continue punishing journalists for uncovering corruption and abuses would be held accountable. Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani government has a notorious record in failing to implement the European Court’s decisions as well. So the plight for justice does not stop with this decision. We will continue demanding full implementation of the Court’s judgments and hope that these steps will convince the government of Azerbaijan to stop its oppressive actions against journalists and reform the judicial system so that justice can in due course be served in domestic courts”.
Amal Clooney stated:
“Khadija is a brave journalist who has uncovered serious corruption and human rights abuses and inspired a new generation of investigative journalists in her country. We celebrate today’s judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, which recognises the cruel and unjust measures taken by the government to silence her. We also commend the Court for recognising the ongoing weaponization of the law in Azerbaijan ‘through retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of criminal law’ against journalists who dare to speak truth to power. I hope that this judgment can bring about the end of such practices so that Khadija and other human rights defenders can continue their important work”.
Nani Jansen Reventlow stated:
“This is clear vindication not only for Khadija, with the court acknowledging that her arrest and detention were intended to punish and silence her as an investigative journalist, but also for other activists in the country. The court found that Khadija’s case cannot be seen in isolation, placing it in context of a pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, civil society activists and human rights defenders. This pattern continues till this day and we can only hope that the court’s ruling will send a strong signal that this is not acceptable”.
Alinda Vermeer (Media Legal Defence Initiative) stated:
“Today’s judgment makes clear that Khadija’s arrest and detention was entirely unjustified. While we welcome the decision, we hope that the Court will move quickly to consider Khadija’s conviction and sentence on these trumped-up charges, particularly in light of the severe harassment she continues to face today.”
Counsel for Khadija would like to thank the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, Freedom Now, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Human Rights House Foundation, International Partnership for Human Rights, ARTICLE 19, PEN International, International Media Support, the International Partnership for Human Rights and the Committee to Protect Journalists for their third-party interventions in this case.
Khadija is an award-winning journalist who has exposed high-level corruption by the President of Azerbaijan and his close associates, and was subjected to extensive harassment and intimidation as a result. Khadija was arrested in December 2014 on absurd charges of “inciting another person’s suicide” and later faced further unfounded charges of tax evasion, “illegal entrepreneurship” and abuse of power. She was repeatedly denied bail and ultimately sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in September 2015 after a sham trial.
In March 2016 Khadija’s counsel, Amal Clooney and Nani Jansen Reventlow, filed an application no. 30778/15) before the European Court of Human Rights arguing that her charges and pre-trial detention violated her rights under Articles 5, 6, 10, 13, 14 and 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In April 2016, Ms Clooney also met with representatives of the US and Azerbaijani Governments to call for Khadija’s release. Khadija was released the following month and her sentence was reduced to 3.5 years of “conditional arrest”.
On 10 January 2019, the European Court delivered another judgment against Azerbaijan relating to Khadija’s case (Application nos. 65286/13 and 57270/14), finding that Azerbaijan failed to investigate the covert recording and release of an intimate video of Khadija through a camera planted in her bedroom, in violation of her rights under Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention. The Court held that Azerbaijan was liable to pay Khadija a total of approximately EUR 17,000 as a result. Azerbaijan has not, to date, complied with this judgment.