Press Freedom in Azerbaijan: ECtHR Delivers Judgment in the Case of Khadija Ismayilova
The European Court of Human Rights has delivered its judgment today in the case of award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The Court held that Azerbaijan had arbitrarily detained Khadija, in order to prevent her working as a journalist, and had violated her right to the presumption of innocence, when it arrested her on trumped up charges in December 2014 and held her in pre-trial detention until May 2016.
The Court held the Azerbaijan must pay Khadija EUR 20,000 in compensation. In its ruling, the Court noted that Khadija’s arrest and detention were part of a “pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, civil society activists and human rights defenders through retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of the criminal law” in Azerbaijan.
Khadija, recipient of UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize in 2016, is one of the few remaining independent journalists in Azerbaijan. She has repeatedly exposed corruption within the Presidential family and been subject to a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation as a result.
In December 2014, Khadija was arrested and charged on the basis she had incited a colleague to attempt suicide. Additional charges were subsequently added to the indictment including tax evasion, “illegal entrepreneurship”, and abuse of power. All of the charges were widely condemned as unfounded and politically motivated, and part of a broader pattern of repression of free media within Azerbaijan.
Today the Court held that the Azerbaijani authorities arrested Khadija and held her in pre-trial detention without any reasonable suspicion that she committed the charged offences. Further, the domestic courts “systematically failed” to review the lawfulness of her detention, despite her repeated requests that they do so. The Court held that the authorities had taken these actions in order to silence and punish her as a well-known investigative journalist. Finally, the Court held that Azerbaijan had violated her right to presumption of innocence.
While today’s judgment provides a clear acknowledgement that Khadija should never have been arrested, her conviction on two of the trumped charges remains in place. An application relating to her sham trial and conviction was filed by Media Defence in November 2016 and is still pending before the Court.
More recently, Khadija was ordered to pay more than EUR23, 000 to the state, as result of the conviction for tax evasion. She remains subject to a travel ban and the authorities have frozen her bank accounts, denying her access to the funds she needs to continue her work as an investigative journalist.
On 7 February 2020, Media Defence, together with Azeri human rights lawyer Yalchin Imanov, filed a further application to the Court, challenging these further violations of Khadija’s rights.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan still refuses to pay almost EUR17, 000 due to Khadija following an earlier judgment of the Court.
Following the judgment, Media Defence’s Acting CEO and counsel in the case, Alinda Vermeer, said:
“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”.
Co-counsel, Amal Clooney of Doughty Street Chambers, added:
“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”.
In her response to the judgment today, Khadija stated:
“I want to thank my counsels, who litigated the case in domestic courts and internationally. I was lucky to get the best legal representation thanks to the wonderful lawyers, whose work was indispensable and has set a new quality standard to the human rights work in Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, access to legal aid is becoming more and more difficult task for government critics in Azerbaijan. Yalchin Imanov, who was the leading counsel in domestic litigation of this case was disbarred for defending political prisoners like myself. Two other lawyers, who represented me in the same case were also subjected to temporary suspension.
Having no access to independent judiciary in our own country, we cast our hopes for justice upon ECHR decisions, so those who continue punishing journalists for uncovering corruption and abuses would be held accountable. Unfortunately, Azerbaijani government has a notorious record in non-implementing ECHR decisions as well. The plight for justice doesn’t stop with this decision, as we will continue demanding full implementation in a hope, that these steps will convince the government of Azerbaijan to stop oppressive actions against journalists and reform judiciary system, so the justice could be served in domestic courts.”
Khadija Ismayilova was represented by Media Defence and Amal Clooney of Doughty Street Chambers. For full judgment (App no. 30778/15) see: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-201340