Foreign Policy Blogs

Azerbaijan: Blackmail Video Made Public, Possible Imminent Release of Political Prisoners

Khadija Ismayilova, left center, shaking hands (credit: RFE/RL Dragan Milojevic)

It was bound to happen, although I prayed that it wouldn’t. But at least one web site in Azerbaijan has now released the blackmail video involving well-known correspondent Khadija Ismayilova. In response, Khadija has issued a public statement, quoted in an RFE/RL article, saying that she will not be deterred:

“If they meant to stop me by this, I can assure you they have been wrong. They failed to do so,” she said. “I continue doing my investigations. I will publish my investigations as soon as I finish the story. If they meant to stop me, they have failed. If they meant to defame me, they have failed, because I have received the full support of my friends.”

As I’ve said previously, Khadija is an extraordinarily courageous journalist, and as a friend of hers, I am saddened and disturbed by this very personal and vicious attack.

Interestingly, the RFE/RL piece alleges that the url for the site that posted the video “falsely suggests a connection with Azerbaijan’s opposition Musavat (Equality) party,” which if true would be an attempt to smear both Khadija and Musavat.

Turan News Agency in Baku reports that the editor of Yeni Musavat, the party newspaper, says that the site has no relation to his newspaper or the party.

In other news, I have been told by an Azeri source close to the opposition that President Aliyev is about to release virtually all political prisoners who were arrested and convicted for a variety of charges during Azerbaijan’s “Arab Spring” unrest last year.

Normally I don’t publish rumors, but it makes sense, and will be a major story if it pans out. Presidential pardons are often granted during holidays, and the Azeri “Novruz” celebrations are beginning soon. My source says the president has already signed the release order and believes that the reason for the urgency is the increasingly negative commentary from the international press on Azerbaijan’s human rights situation prior to the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Baku in May of this year.

We will see what develops in the next 48 hours.

Also today, Ruslan Bashirli, who was convicted in a sensational trial in 2006 for plotting to overthrow the government, is reported to have written a letter to President Aliyev asking for a pardon. Bashirli, a founding member of the Yeni Fekir (New Idea) youth group, was arrested in 2005, along with two co-defendants.

The key evidence against Bashirli was video footage that appeared to show him bragging to associates—and so-called “Armenian agents”—in Tbilisi that he was working with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to overthrow President Aliyev’s government.

In Bashirli’s purported letter to President Aliyev, available at News.az, he confesses to wrong-doing and denounces his former political allies while expressing admiration for the president’s achievements:

“I have already served six years and seven months of the punishment. Over this time I have understood my responsibility for the crime and acknowledged my guilt. At that time I was hot-tempered and influenced by powers that disliked you and us.

“Analyzing my past over these years, I understood my faults. Of course, your positive activity in recent years had a big role in this. The achievements in domestic and foreign policy are obvious. No one can deny them.”

This is major shift in worldview, and comes a mere three weeks after a similar letter was supposedly written by Elnur Israfilov, a young man convicted for his participation in the April demonstrations. Like Bashirli, Israfilov was not only contrite in his letter, but blamed others for manipulating him:

“I have been engaged in actions aimed at disturbing peace, obstructing transport, violating the normal functioning schedule of enterprises, offices and organizations at the instigation of my uncle Mammad Ibrahimli. He has engaged me and simple people like me in order to fulfill his reckless intentions.”

I talked to his uncle via Skype in February, who told me that the letter was written in a style that suggested it was dictated or authored by someone else, and alleged that former political prisoner and journalist Eynullah Fatullayev had convinced Israfilov to write it.

My Azeri source tells me that Bashirli’s family have traveled to Baku in anticipation of his impending release in the next day or two. Pro-government ANS TV has been playing up the Bashirli story today, perhaps suggesting that they know that a pardon will be granted.

 

Author

Karl Rahder
Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/ISN-Insights), news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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