Ismayilova, an award-winning investigative reporter and program host on Radio Azadlyg, the Azeri service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested in Baku on December 5, 2014.
Authorities charged Ismayilova with inciting a man to commit suicide and ordered her to be imprisoned for two months pending an investigation into the case, news reports said. While she was in jail, authorities raided the radio station’s Baku bureau, detained and interrogated its staff, confiscated financial documents and reporting equipment, and sealed the newsroom, reports said.
In January 2015, a Baku court extended Ismayilova’s pretrial detention for another two months; a few weeks later, the general prosecutor’s office brought new charges against her of embezzlement, illegal business, tax evasion, and abuse of power, according to regional and international press reports.
During her trial, defense witnesses, including RFE/RL representatives, denied the accusations against Ismayilova, telling the court that she did not have authority to conduct business deals, make decisions about hiring, or manipulate fiscal documents, news reports said. Additionally, the man whose attempted suicide authorities used to file original charges against Ismayilova stated publicly that prosecutors had forced him to incriminate the journalist, RFE/RL reported.
On September 1, 2015, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced Ismayilova to seven and a half years in prison on charges of illegal business, tax evasion, abuse of power, and embezzlement, local and international press reported. Authorities dropped the charge of incitement to suicide. On November 25, 2015 the Baku Court of Appeals upheld Ismayilova’s conviction, according to the Sport for Rights coalition.
Ismayilova is known for her exposés of high-level government corruption, including her investigation into alleged ties between President Ilham Aliyev’s family and businesses. For years, Ismayilova also covered Azerbaijan’s grave human rights record.
Ismayilova and her lawyer denied the allegations against her, which they said were in retaliation for her coverage. In an article published by the local press two days before Ismayilova’s arrest, Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, accused her of treason and espionage, according to news reports.
Before her imprisonment, authorities had consistently harassed Ismayilova through smear campaigns, prosecution, and travel bans, CPJ research shows. Ismayilova, the 2015 winner of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, is being held in Prison No. 4, according to the Sport for Rights coalition. CPJ was unable to determine Ismayilova’s health.
In the run-up to the first European Games, held in Baku in June 2015, CPJ and the Sport for Rights coalition pressed the European Olympic Committees to demand the release of imprisoned journalists and a halt to Azerbaijan’s crackdown on journalists and civil society.