Over the past decade, the investigative reporter and commentator for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and regional coordinator and partner for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Khadija Ismayilova, had been shaking things up by exposing government corruption. More recently, she was zeroing in on the activities of President Ilham Aliyev and his clan. She has said that she never set out to target them; their names just kept cropping up in her investigations. Along the way, she started getting clear warnings —warnings other journalists might have heeded. Ismayilova knew that they were telling her to keep her nose out of places it did not belong. But for her, running was not an option, American journalist Don Ray writes on OCCRP website https://www.occrp.org/freekhadijaismayilova/stories/the-making-of-an-investigative-reporter.php.
The more she dug, the clearer the picture became. Her investigations documented the outright plundering of the Azerbaijani treasury: the ruling clan seemed to be leveraging personal control of the former Soviet state’s transportation system, banks, government mining operations and more. The more she uncovered and reported, the more the government tried to close off the access to key information. When that did not stop Ismayilova, the threats of personal attacks began — outrageous, demeaning and humiliating attacks. Ismayilova told them she would not stop, so they followed through by releasing hidden camera video of her most intimate moments. The ploy backfired, however, and turned public sentiment in her favor, she said. Next they arrested her on what her employers, supporters and leading journalism organizations consider to be ludicrous, trumped-up charges, Ray writes.
He points that nearly a decade earlier, it had been the assassination of the journalist Elmar Huseynov that inspired the then-28-year-old reporter to devote her life to exposing corruption, consequences be damned. Huseynov used to publish a very critical and independent magazine, ‘Monitor,’ which highlighted high-level corruption cases and the President’s clan being involved in corrupt practices. Ismayilova realized that he had been working on topics that were difficult to report and he often failed to get all of the key documents to prove his stories. “But he was telling the truth to people,” she said. After Huseynov’s death, she vowed to help pick up where Huseynov had left off.
Until 2009, Ismayilova says, the media were still very quiet in Azerbaijan because of continued attacks on reporters who were writing critical stories. But that year, she began helping Washington Post writer Andrew Higgins work on a story about the president’s clan owning expensive real estate properties in Dubai. Publishing that story broke the silence. Nobody denied that the Aliyevs owned the property. “Before that, we had journalists saying, ‘Oh, this government, president — they are thieves.’ It was all their own opinions — never facts. And now we had facts to talk about — facts to refer to,” Ismayilova highlighted.
According to Ray, Ismayilova and her fellow reporters learned from OCCRP how to fish for offshore companies connected to the Aliyev clan. They started digging into bank privatization records relating to the state airline company. They discovered that, in the mix of privatization, one of the representatives of the clan ended up being one of the owners of Silk Way bank.
In August 2010, Ismayilova and fellow reporter Ulviyye Asadzade broke the story. “They broke the law to become a bank owner,” Ismayilova said. “We published this story, proving every sentence there.” The bank was part of a larger, recently privatized company that enjoyed a near-complete monopoly over every aspect of airline service businesses. There was no comment from the government about the story. However, the Aliyev regime began trying to silence the voices that were not under its control.
Ray notes that for nearly a century, from 1920 until 1991, when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijani people had little or no access to news stories that were critical of the government. Since 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence, journalism has not improved much, Ismayilova said. The government fully controls the broadcast media and the handful of newspapers have low circulation and poor distribution. “So basically, there is no independent media in Azerbaijan,” Ismayilova said. “Most of it is still propaganda, but it’s propaganda of the regime.”
According to the article, Ilham Aliyev became president on October 15, 2003, two months before the death of his predecessor Heydar Aliyev who had been a high-level official in the Soviet KGB. In 1969, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev appointed the senior Aliyev to the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan Communist Party, as an enforcer in a Soviet anti-corruption campaign. Two decades later, Mikhail Gorbachev forced Heydar Aliyev to resign from a high-level position in the Soviet Politburo because of allegations of corruption. The elder Aliyev became the president of the Azerbaijan Republic in 1993, and won reelection in 1998, despite allegations of voter fraud and corruption.
Before his death in 2003, he had already put his son, Ilham, in a position that would ensure he would succeed him. Ilham Aliyev garnered 76.84 percent of the votes. He won a second term in 2008 with 87 percent of the vote, thanks in part to the opposition parties boycotting the election, Ray points.
Aliyev’s administration orchestrated a constitutional referendum that abolished term limits for the president and inflicted severe restrictions on freedom of the press. “We had BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” Ismayilova said, “but they all were banned on local frequencies in 2009. The government of Azerbaijan doesn’t want its citizens to listen to this news, because they were not able to control the content.” The foreign broadcasters turned more to the Internet to reach the people of Azerbaijan, although much of the population had no online access.
In June 2011, Ismayilova proved that Aliyev clan representatives were the main shareholders of Azerfon, then Azerbaijan’s only provider of 3G mobile phone services. A few years earlier, everyone had believed what the government had announced — that Azerfon belonged to the German firm Siemens A.G. and a couple of British firms.
According to Don Ray, in early 2011, Ismayilova discovered that one of energy corporations was involved in a controversial construction contract the president referred to as a “patriotic project.” “It was building the highest flagpole in the world,” Ismayilova said. “The Azerbaijani flag would be on it.” But it turned out to be a short-lived glory. Just six months later, Tajikistan – another “stupid country” – built a taller one, she says. Ismayilova says she discussed the project on her radio program, and later she would learn from Wikileaks documents that the country’s leader was not happy with her. “President Aliyev named me an enemy of the state for making fun of this project on the air,” she said.
According to the article, Ismayilova says she was still investigating the story on March 7, 2011, when she received a blackmail letter. She had no doubt that it came from someone in the Azerbaijani government. “I received this package which contained a note saying, ‘You whore. Behave or you will be defamed.’” It included intimate photographs that were still images that came from a hidden camera footage from her bedroom. “I knew that this is how they want to stop me,” Ismayilova said.
[12:53:18] KENTRON — Elibegova Anzhela: She ignored the advice of colleagues who told her not to do her radio show that afternoon. She was sure the blackmailers were listening to her that day. Next, she posted a public statement on Facebook under the headline: “This is how I answer the blackmailers.” “I said I’m not going to stop any of my investigations and I said I’m not going to shut up. I’m not ashamed of anything in my life, I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve been doing, and if they think that they shamed me — and that will stop me — they’re wrong,” she wrote.
She says she filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, but it did not stop the blackmailers from posting the video of her and her boyfriend on a website that the blackmailers had created to look like it belonged to an opposition party. “In a country where honor killings are still taking place, in a country where women are not entitled to have sex before marriage, in a country where this kind of behavior, like having a boyfriend, having an apartment and living by yourself, is considered as going against traditions,” she said, “I received full support from society.”
She says it did not surprise her that the prosecutor’s office said it was never able to identify who had put the secret video cameras in her apartment. “I had no doubts about who did it — who ordered it —but I wanted to know how did it happen.” She was able to figure out the camera angle and quickly discovered phone wires where the camera in her bedroom had been. She followed the wires to the living room and also to the bathroom. “That was a shock,” she said. “And the week after, I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I had this feeling that somebody is watching.”
According to the article, she followed the wires to a telephone box outside that belonged to the state-run telephone company. She demanded that the prosecutor’s office call whoever installed the line. Being rejected, she herself called to the telephone company to send a service member. The man who arrived looked at it and said he remembered installing it in July of 2011 because he was told the client needed another phone line.
In the meantime, she continued working on her investigative stories. She had teamed up with her former student, Nushabe Fatullayeva who had been doing some curious digging of her own. On May 2, 2012, the two journalists documented a paper trail that proved that a lucrative contract to mine government gold had gone to a company in the United Kingdom — a company that was actually owned by a Panama corporation. Ismayilova and Fatullayeva showed that Aliyev clan representatives were the secret owners. Six days later, Ismayilova found that the clan was involved in the building of a US$134 million concert venue called the Crystal Hall to host and showcase the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. One of the builders was a company of which the president’s clan was a secret owner, according to Ray’s article.
That same year, Azerbaijan’s National Assembly passed legislation that required a court order to find out who owns what in Azerbaijan, and, just to be safe, the law grants lifelong criminal immunity to all ex-Presidents and ex-First Ladies. The new laws only apply to companies in Azerbaijan, so Ismayilova and OCCRP colleagues Pavla Holcova and Jaromir Hason dug through property records in the Czech Republic. In October of 2011, the team reported that Azerbaijani officials, including the ruling clan, had formed corporations in Prague, purchased land, and built hotels and villas in luxurious places such as the famous spa city of Karlovy Vary, Ray points.
Ismayilova broke another corruption story in late June 2014, when she wrote about media mogul Sona Veliyeva, who is married to Ali Hasanov, an influential government official — an official with power to make policy regarding freedom of speech, political liberties and the media. Quite often, Ismayilova wrote, President Aliyev would make decrees that prevented outside networks or productions from airing video inside Azerbaijan. To fill the video vacuum, Hasanov would dole out contracts to local producers, including the companies his own wife owned. In all, Ismayilova connected a dozen such media companies to Hasanov’s wife, according to Ray’s article.
Ismayilova also proved that the Aliyev clan was working its way toward a near monopoly of the telecom industry. Before she could provide more details on the story, authorities arrested her on December 5, 2014. She has been in prison since, Ray writes.
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