Reporter on trial in Azerbaijan on criminal libel charges

New York, October 10, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the criminal libel charges filed against Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, and calls on authorities to drop the charges immediately.

Ismayilova is known for her investigations into government corruption in Azerbaijan, including ties between President Ilham Aliyev’s family and some lucrative businesses. She hosts a daily program at Radio Azadlyg, the Azeri service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The case stems from accusations by a local individual in Baku, Elman Hasanov, who is referred to in reports as Turkoglu, who said the journalist had slandered him in statements she posted on Facebook, according to regional and international press reports. Hasanov accused Ismayilova of saying he raped a local woman and that he was a homosexual and said that a few years ago she had published a document by the Azerbaijani national security agency, known as MNB, on Facebook that said he was an informant, according to news reports.

Ismayilova denied the accusations, and said she had published a document but had removed all the names.

The trial, which started in Baku on Thursday, is closed to the public and the press, Radio Azadlyg said. If convicted of libel, Ismayilova faces up to three years in jail.

“It is difficult to view this case against Khadija Ismayilova in isolation from the long pattern of official harassment of the tenacious journalist,” said Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia researcher. “We urge Azerbaijani authorities to drop these criminal charges immediately and to set about reforming the country’s antiquated libel laws.”

Ismayilova has long been targeted, mostly by Azerbaijani authorities. Last week, authorities at Baku’s international airport detained Ismayilova for four hours upon her arrival from Strasbourg, where she had traveled to brief European politicians on Azerbaijan’s alarming human rights record. Earlier this year, authorities interrogated Ismayilova, accusing her of distributing state secrets, and imposed a brief travel ban against her. In 2012, a video of a personal nature, purportedly depicting the journalist, was published on a website and distributed via social media, according to reports. Days before the video was published, the state-owned newspaper Yeni Azerbaijan published an article that said she led an immoral life and was corrupt, Ismayilova told CPJ.

Azerbaijan, which currently holds the rotating presidency at the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe–the pan-European human rights body–has jailed more than a dozen journalists and rights activists in retaliation for their work, according to research by CPJ and other human rights groups.