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Meet Amal Clooney's latest client

Amal Clooney (image: Alamy)

Khadija Ismayilova is a brilliant investigative reporter, imprisoned by Azerbaijan

On 17 January human rights lawyer Amal Clooney made an announcement at the end of an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. Asked what she had planned next, Clooney said she had taken on the case of a female journalist in Azerbaijan who had been jailed for exposing corruption of the ruling regime. That description could only fit one person – renowned investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova.

The news took a few days to work its way into the Azerbaijani press, but when it did, the story exploded. On 20 January, Clooney’s firm, Doughty Street Chambers, and the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) issued a press release confirming that Clooney, along with MLDI’s Nani Jansen, would be representing Ismayilova at the European Court of Human Rights.

But before this was even confirmed, Azerbaijan’s propaganda machine was churning at full speed. The country’s pro-governmental press was full of stories critical of Clooney, slamming her previous representation of Armenia in a genocide-denial case against a Turkish politician, questioning her motives, and even claiming that Clooney herself was of Armenian descent (she’s not; she’s of Lebanese heritage). The stories were inflammatory, accusing Clooney of being anti-Turkic and seeking to increase her own fame. One pro-government journalist went so far as to address Amal Clooney’s husband, actor George Clooney, writing him an "open letter" suggesting that he control his wife.

The reason for this heated reaction was clear: the Azerbaijani regime feared the increased international attention Clooney’s involvement would bring to Ismayilova’s case. They still fear Clooney’s client, despite the fact that she has been jailed for more than a year.

Khadija Ismayilova is one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent and courageous investigative journalists. The charismatic and extremely funny 39 year-old reporter got her start working for publications such as Caspian Business News and the newspaper Zerkalo. She received US-funded investigative training, and worked for Voice of America for two years in Washington, DC, before returning to Azerbaijan in 2008 as the Baku bureau chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where she also presented a popular radio programme called After Work.

Azerbaijan's corrupt elite

In recent years, Ismayilova has been one of the few journalists willing to probe stories on risky topics such as human rights abuses and corruption among Azerbaijan’s ruling elite. Much of her work focused on the business interests of President Ilham Aliyev and his family. She detailed their stake in a lucrative gold mining contract signed in 2012, and in Crystal Hall, the venue initially built for the Eurovision Song Contest that Baku hosted in 2012. She exposed their ownership of a telecoms company, and their holdings in the Czech Republic. She examined their role in the privatisation of the public airport, and uncovered many other stories that portrayed President Aliyev and other top officials in an unfavourable light. As an apparent result of some of her investigations, in June 2012, Azerbaijan’s parliament passed a series of amendments allowing commercial enterprises to keep secret information about their registration, ownership, and structure, which seriously limited journalists’ ability to pursue further investigations like Ismayilova’s. The same day, parliament granted President Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution.

As Ismayilova once told me, she had never set out intentionally seeking to expose Aliyev and his family. But everywhere she looked, there they were; their names came up in her investigations into businesses large and small, foreign and domestic. Ismayilova is not the sort of person who could sit on information she felt was in the public’s interest to know, and so she pursued these stories relentlessly, in the face of tremendous pressure, taking on serious personal risks.

At the same time, the broader human rights situation in Azerbaijan was deteriorating rapidly. Authorities were carrying out a brutal crackdown, working aggressively to silence all critical voices. They pressured journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, lawyers, youth activists and politicians through a range of tactics, from threats to imprisonment. Parliament adopted regressive legislation hindering the ability of civil society to operate, and a mass criminal case was opened against more than 30 foreign and local NGOs. By the time of Ismayilova’s arrest in December 2014, there were reports of nearly 100 political prisoners in the country.


Ismayilova’s arrest was far from the first move against her. She had already faced many years of pressure, such as harassment, intimidation, and threats against her and her family members, when a particularly provocative incident brought her into the international public eye. In March 2012, Ismayilova went public with a blackmail attempt against her. She had received an envelope containing intimate photos of her and a note warning “Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed”. She refused to be silenced, exposed the threat, and carried on with her investigative journalistic work. A week later, a sex video of Ismayilova – filmed by a camera hidden in her bedroom – was posted online. Such a move would be deeply embarrassing to anyone, but it also had the potential to put Ismayilova at elevated risk, as an unmarried woman in a predominantly Muslim country.

In the aftermath of the release of the sex tape – followed several months later by the release of a second sex tape and various other forms of pressure – Ismayilova continued her courageous work. Although she certainly had many very vocal critics, she also received a high level of public support, and her following grew. Apart from her journalism, Ismayilova began to emerge as a civic activist, taking part in a series of pro-democracy protests in 2013 responding to social issues such as the deaths of soldiers in non-combat situations.

Ismayilova was briefly detained after one of these protests, and fined under then-newly enacted legislation that had sharply increased the penalty for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. She objected to the fine as a matter of principle, and refused to pay it, instead starting a “civil disobedience campaign”. Eventually she was ordered to serve 220 hours of community service, sweeping the streets. She welcomed the opportunity, dubbing it “Sweeping for Democracy”. Many Azerbaijanis on social media pledged to join her. The authorities, in fear of a strong public response that the sight of Ismayilova sweeping the streets could trigger, ordered her instead to clean indoors, in a less visible location. She refused. They could have jailed her for three months, but did not – perhaps still in fear of the fallout.

That was just one of many examples of the government’s fear of Ismayilova’s growing popularity. That fear seemed to trickle down from the very top, with President Aliyev himself reportedly labelling her an “enemy of the government”. And yet she persisted, as she always had, doggedly set on exposing the very stories the ruling regime was most set on covering up.

Investigating official corruption became increasingly risky as the Azerbaijani authorities began preparations to host the inaugural European Games, which would take place in Baku in June 2015. In August 2014, in a move to silence critics before the international media focused on the country, the authorities arrested several of Azerbaijan’s most vocal human rights defenders – Leyla and Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev – with others, such as Emin Huseynov, being forced into hiding or leaving the country out of fear for their safety.

Ismayilova responded to the arrests of these human rights defenders by intensifying her own work, and picking up some of the unfinished business these colleagues had left behind. She was instrumental in finalising and publishing a list of political prisoners that these human rights defenders had been working on, with their names now included. This document would become critical to international human rights advocacy efforts on Azerbaijan, leading to eventual calls at the European Parliament and in the U.S. Congress for individual sanctions against Azerbaijani officials responsible for human rights violations.

All that time, Ismayilova was aware that she herself could be arrested. In February 2014, she had posted a public note to her Facebook page, titled “If I get arrested”. In it, she made clear her feelings about negotiations on her behalf. She was not interested in diplomacy behind closed doors; she wanted action to be public, and she did not want advocacy only for her release, but for the release of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Ismayilova also listed ongoing investigations she was working on that she felt might trigger her arrest; they were all related to the business interests of the president’s family.

 Over the following months, Ismayilova received more warnings about her arrest, and was urged to stay abroad – as by then she was travelling frequently, speaking at key international events and institutions on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Azerbaijan. But she refused to bow to the pressure, and returned, trip after trip, to her increasingly hostile home country. In a video interview given in October 2014, she said, “I may be arrested. I’ve been warned several times. I’m not afraid. It’s not my wish to be arrested. I don’t want to be arrested, but I know that it may happen. If that’s the price for being free, okay, but I feel free, and that’s a great motivation”.

Ismayilova was finally arrested on 4 December 2014, on the bizarre charge of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide. She was later additionally charged with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. After a trial filled with irregularities and due process violations, on 1 September 2015 Ismayilova was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on the financial charges. She was acquitted of the inciting suicide charge, as the man in question had rescinded his testimony and withdrew his complaint against her. A few weeks later, on 26 December 2014, authorities raided and sealed the office of Ismayilova’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Since her arrest, Ismayilova’s investigative work has continued through the “Khadija Project” carried out by an international network of her colleagues at the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. From jail, Ismayilova herself has continued to speak out, periodically smuggling out letters to the international press. In the courtroom and from prison, she has always maintained a strong, positive presence. In jail, Ismayilova, who has a beautiful operatic voice, has continued to sing, encouraging her fellow inmates to join her, and advocates for their better treatment. Even when placed into solitary confinement as punishment following the publication of one of her letters, Ismayilova focused on the silver lining, stating that she appreciated the chance to look out of the window, which she did not have in her usual cell.

That, all of that, is the Khadija Ismayilova that I know and love – my friend and colleague, the dogged investigative reporter, the popular radio host, the civic activist, the human rights defender, the optimist, who always rises to the challenge, who consistently shows extraordinary courage no matter what the risk to herself, who continues to speak out even from behind bars for the good of her country. She knows that what is happening to her is historical, and perhaps Amal Clooney recognises that too. In lending her considerable legal expertise and profile to Ismayilova’s cause, Clooney has potentially changed the game for Ismayilova and for Azerbaijan.

Rebecca Vincent is a writer, human rights activist and former diplomat

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  1. Peter Pomerantsev is an award-winning TV producer and a contributor to the London Review of Books. His writing has been published in the Financial Times,New Yorker,Wall Street Journal,Foreign Policy,Daily Beast, Newsweek,Le Monde Diplomatique, among others. He has also worked as a consultant for the EU and World Bank. He is the author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia.