-As news quickly spreads around the globe about the politically motivated arrest on 5 December of prominent Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, many will focus on her media work. Indeed, Ismayilova has long been one of Azerbaijan’s most courageous and dedicated investigative journalists, and one of the dwindling few willing to explore risky topics, such as corruption among the country’s ruling elite. Her journalistic activities were no doubt a major reason for her arrest. But another aspect of Ismayilova’s work merits attention.
In authoritarian countries, independent journalists sometimes find themselves serving as de facto human rights defenders, as they might be among the few documenting and publicizing human rights abuses and spurring action to address the violations. This has certainly been the case with Ismayilova. In recent years, Ismayilova’s voice has emerged as one of the strongest advocating for the protection of the rights of her fellow citizens, both through her journalism and in her separate activities, which have included everything from participating in protests, to launching a civil disobedience campaign, and taking part in international human rights advocacy missions.
In the months leading up to her arrest, Ismayilova was particularly active in working to defend the rights of the country’s many political prisoners. She served as an observer in a civil society working group that developed a consolidated list of political prisoners in the country – the lack of which had presented a major obstacle to advocacy efforts on the issue for many years. When human rights defenders Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, the working group’s leaders, were arrested, she helped ensure the list was finalized and released. Ismayilova traveled to the Council of Europe to raise the issue in the context of Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the body, which seems to have led directly to the travel ban imposed on her when she returned. She also worked to provide concrete assistance to the families of political prisoners.
In this and many other ways, Ismayilova strove to fill the gaps left by the absence of many prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders – some of whom have been arrested, some who have hidden or fled for safety, and some who have ceased their activities in the face of serious pressure. She did it because of her persistent drive to improve the situation in her country, and because few others remained willing to step up. Now that she has also been detained, even fewer will be left to take up the important work of Ismayilova and those who were arrested before her. The damage of Ismayilova’s absence to what’s left of Azerbaijan’s independent civil society will be immeasurable.
In February this year, while she was being questioned in connection with a separate case against her, Ismayilova published a note titled, ‘If I Get Arrested’, detailing how she wanted advocacy on her case to be handled. She wrote:
“Just in case, I want to remind my request to international community in terms of possible advocacy actions regarding my possible arrest:
Some of you want to help, but can do it only with private diplomacy.
Thank you, but No.
WHEN MY CASE IS CONCERNED, if you can, please support by standing for freedom of speech and freedom of privacy in this country as loudly as possible. Otherwise, I rather prefer you not to act at all.
I don't want any private diplomacy for my case. I don't believe in human rights advocacy behind closed doors. People of my country need to know that human rights are supported.
I also don't want any release-appreciation trade for my release. My possible arrest will be just one of the more than hundred politically motivated arrest and government of Azerbaijan has managed to use revolving doors of prisons for getting positive feedback from the West: releasing one prisoner, getting praised, arresting two.”
Now that Ismayilova has been arrested, she deserves the same support that she has so often given to so many others. The international community should honor her wishes with a resounding public call for her release, along with the release of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL