Last month the Azerbaijani government, plagued by domestic protests, a troubled relationship with the EU and an ongoing border dispute with Armenia woke up to another problem – Amal Clooney.
Fresh from defending Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt, the international human rights lawyer announced that she is taking on the case of jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova has been in prison for over a year on what she claims are trumped-up charges.
But who is Ismayilova? Why is Clooney taking on this seemingly obscure case in a former Soviet Republic? And why is the Azerbaijani government so annoyed about it?
Khadija Ismayilova, 37, is an award-winning investigative journalist with the Azerbaijani service Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. In 2010 she began to report on state-level corruption, naming current President Ilham Aliyev and his family as agents involved in corruption. In 2012 she wrote a piece alleging that the Azerbaijani government had illegally awarded the rights of a gold field to the President’s family. She continued her investigations, documenting offshore companies and illegal ownership of lucrative real estate abroad in the name of Aliyev’s family members.
Ismayilova was detained in December 2014 on charges of “incitement to suicide,” which were later dropped, but she was not released from prison. In September 2015 she was sentenced in a closed trial to seven and half years in prison allegedly for libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity and abuse of power. Human rights organizations condemned the case as fabricated. When she was sentenced Ismayilova commented, “I might be in prison, but the work will continue”.
Amal Clooney and the Media Legal Defense Initiative intend to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. They will argue that Ismayilova’s pre-trial detention violates the European convention. They will argue in a seperate case that the government violated her right to privacy when they failed to prosecute a sex-video blackmail attempt against her. The case must first go through a national appeal process before being considered in Strasbourg. The case has been rejected at the Baku Court of Appeals and Ismayilova’s lawyers since filed a case with the Supreme Court.
Essentially a mouthpiece for the government, the Azerbaijani media responded to the news of Clooney’s latest job with fury. Attacks by agencies AzerNews and Haqqin.az ran the gauntlet from mysogynist to xenophobic – accusing Clooney both of harbouring anti-Turkic sentiment (in 2015 Clooney lost a case against a Turkish politician about Amenian-genocide denial) and of trying to achieve the same heights of fame as her husband (George Clooney). One article wrote simply, ‘We would like to note that Amal Clooney is an ethnic Armenian’ (Clooney is Lebanese-British).
The source of this vitriol is more likely to be the concern that, once again, Azerbaijan’s human rights record will be under the international spotlight. Although the government enjoys the perks of being European — hosting the European Games and competing in the European Song Content – it does not want the burdens of democracy, civil rights or the European Court of Human Rights. Clooney’s fame and reputation mean that wherever she steps, the media follows – and in this case, her attention violates what seems to be a founding principle for post-Soviet nations – the right to harangue and persecute critics without recourse.