For her courage and tenacity in exposing corruption at the highest levels of government through outstanding investigative journalism in the name of transparency and accountability.
Khadija Ismayilova is Azerbaijan’s most outstanding contemporary investigative journalist. For over a decade, her investigative reporting has revealed a wide range of corrupt and lucrative business deals that benefited government officials and multinational companies. Her investigations have uncovered damning evidence of corruption involving family members of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and international companies such as Telia Company, a Swedish-Finnish telecom giant.
In several cases, Ismayilova has shown how the wealth of her nation had been plundered, routed abroad and used to influence European politicians. For publishing articles on corruption, Ismayilova has been subjected to smear campaigns, harassment and fabricated criminal charges. Despite a 5-year travel ban and serving 1.5 years in prison, Ismayilova has refused to be silenced and continues her work as a journalist.
Besides corruption, Ismayilova also often addresses Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, consistently raising the issue of political prisoners in the country and providing their families with support. As the government continues to intimidate and jail journalists with an alarming frequency, Ismayilova remains resolute in courageously speaking out for greater government accountability and the rule of law in Azerbaijan.
Khadija Ismayilova is an outstanding investigative journalist. At great personal risk, she has revealed corruption at the highest level in Azerbaijan, involving leading European politicians and multinational companies. Despite harassment and intimidation, she continues to be a voice for government accountability and the protection of human rights in Azerbaijan.
Uncovering corruption at the highest levels of government
Azerbaijan has a very poor human rights record, despite being a member of the Council of Europe. Reporters without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162th out of 183 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The government led by autocratic President Ilham Aliyev has consistently bribed, blackmailed, harassed and jailed independent investigative journalists and closed independent media platforms.
Khadija Ismayilova has worked as a journalist for a number of media outlets including Caspian Business News, the newspaper Zerkalo, the Washington, DC, office of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Currently, she is a senior investigative reporter with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative reporting platform created by 40 non-profit investigative centres.
Despite the intimidating atmosphere for journalists, she began investigating and reporting on state corruption in 2009, which was highly unusual in Azerbaijan. Her reporting has shed light on the business activities of the president, his family and his family’s close circle. Ismayilova revealed information about their corrupt business activities, routed through proxies and offshore tax havens. These included business dealings by the Aliyev family involving construction projects connected to the Eurovision Song Contest, the purchase of luxurious real estate and secret family interests in gold and silver mines and Azerbaijani telecoms. The latter has also implicated multinational companies like Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant Telia Company.
Ismayilova’s work has been crucial to exposing the corrupt nexus between the Azerbaijani government and European businesses and politicians, which has sustained a dictatorial regime plundering the wealth of the nation. Her investigative journalism revealed links between Aliyev’s family and an alleged corruption scandal involving Luca Volontè – an Italian member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In January 2021, Volontè was sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment for receiving bribes to silence the council’s criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record.
Harassments and smear campaign
For her work exposing corruption, Ismayilova has been subjected to the full spectrum of gendered attacks on women human rights defenders and journalists. In March 2012, Ismayilova received a letter containing intimate photos of her, with a note warning her that the photos would be made public if she did not stop her work. It was clear that unknown persons had broken into her apartment and placed hidden cameras in her bedroom. Ismayilova refused to give in and publicly exposed the blackmail attempt, leading to an intimate video of her being circulated on the internet. Later, Ismayilova discovered that the local state-owned telephone company was involved in obtaining the footage in violation of her privacy. Following this, articles attacking Ismayilova’s character appeared in a number of newspapers owned by the state and the ruling party.
In 2014, Ismayilova filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the Republic of Azerbaijan was either directly responsible for the serious intrusions into her private life or it did not comply with its duty to take measures to protect her privacy by failing to conduct an effective investigation and identify those responsible. In January 2019, the court ruled that Azerbaijan had indeed failed to investigate an intimate video secretly filmed in Ismayilova’s bedroom and thus the country had breached the European Convention on Human Rights. The ineffective investigation had been an affront to her human dignity, the court said, requiring Azerbaijan to provide Ismayilova with a compensation of 15,000 Euros and another 1,750 Euros for legal costs and expenses.
Imprisoned and banned from traveling for doing her job
Far from being silenced, Ismayilova expanded her work after this ordeal and began advocating for the rights of Azerbaijani human rights defenders, several of whom were arrested in the summer of 2014. Ismayilova became one of the few individuals who continued to raise the issue of political prisoners and provided their families with much-needed support. For her continued outspoken criticism of the president and his close circle, Ismayilova was arrested on December 5, 2014, and was initially detained on trumped-up charges of causing a former colleague to attempt suicide. The colleague later publicly acknowledged that he had been forced to testify against Ismayilova by high-level officials at the Baku City Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of National Security. Her arrest came one day after the head of the Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan, Ramiz Mehdiyev, published a 60-page statement naming Ismayilova as a public enemy for her journalistic work supposedly targeting the government.
On February 15, 2015, three months after her arrest, Ismayilova was formally charged with embezzlement, illegal business practices, tax evasion and abuse of power, which happened to mirror the crimes committed by President Aliyev and his family as exposed through her journalism. Ismayilova was found guilty and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in September 2015. Her imprisonment was heavily condemned by major international human rights organisations, with Amnesty International listing her as a prisoner of conscience. After an international campaign, Ismayilova was finally released on May 25, 2016, after spending 1.5 years in prison. While Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court decided to commute her sentence to a 3.5-year suspended term, the Ministry of Justice nevertheless imposed travel restrictions on Ismayilova, consequently forbidding her from travelling abroad. Ismayilova’s attempts to get the travel ban lifted to be able to attend international events was rejected by local courts until its expiration in 2021.
In February 2020, Ismayilova’s 2014 arrest and pre-trial detention were ruled unlawful and politically motivated by the European Court of Human Rights. The Court also found no evidence to back up the charges of embezzlement, illegal business practices and abuse of power. It ruled that the allegations regarding tax evasion were also unfounded. The Court ordered Azerbaijan to pay Ismayilova 20,000 Euros for damages and 5,000 Euros for expenses.
Keeping independent journalism alive in Azerbaijan
In spite of all that she has endured, Ismayilova continues her work as an independent investigative journalist. Her investigative reports, often produced in collaboration with civil society organisations and human rights defenders, have received worldwide acclaim. UNESCO honoured her with its annual Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in May 2016. During her imprisonment, PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression, recognised her journalistic achievements, presenting her with their media freedom award in May 2015.
On September 4, 2017, OCCRP, in collaboration with several leading European publications, including The Guardian and Le Monde, published a series of articles titled the Azerbaijani Laundromat. The stories revealed how the Azerbaijani ruling elite operated a secret 2.9-billion-dollar scheme to pay prominent Europeans to silence international criticism, buy luxury goods and launder money through a network of opaque British companies. Ismayilova was a lead author of the award-winning investigative series. Today, her investigative reporting continues to push for accountability, good governance and respect for human rights in Azerbaijan and beyond.