A number of governments and human rights organizations have called on Azerbaijan to explain the imprisonment of a prominent journalist in the country. Her former editor told DW she won't be silenced - even behind bars.
After Khadija Ismayilova was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on Tuesday, criticism poured in from western nations and human rights organizations decrying Baku's silencing of one of its fiercest critics.
"This is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights," read a statement from the US state department, urging President Ilham Aliyev to release Ismayilova immediately.
Human Rights Watch called Ismayilova's jailing "outrageous" and said it "shows the Azerbaijani authorities' willingness to subvert the law to exact revenge against critics."
"Her conviction and sentence should be immediately set aside," the group's executive director Kenneth Roth, said in a statement.
"The trial raised fundamental questions on the impartiality of the court and the legality of the accusation, as witnessed by the international monitors," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Ismayilova was sentenced in Baku for allegedly running an illegal business, tax evasion, abuse of power and embezzlement.
Thorbjoern Jagland, chief of the Council of Europe that Azerbaijan is part of, called on Baku to furnish the evidence that led to the conviction, and repeated European concerns that activists, journalists and regime critics were being targeted.
Ismayilova's former boss called on the West to raise its voice (pictured: Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in Berlin this January)
Former boss speaks up
Ismayilova, whose work was instrumental in uncovering corruption at the highest level of the Baku government, worked as a freelancer for broadcasters that included Radio Free Europe.
"We have an expression in Azerbaijan ... 'She is a real man' - and we always joked that Khadija had more courage and integrity than many men in Azerbaijan," said Kenan Aliyev, her former boss at RFE in Baku, which was raided and closed down by Azeri authorities in 2014.
"She is a very strong personality. She was a headache for any editor, but it was a good headache, because she would always try to get to the bottom of the story. She questioned everything as a journalist," Aliyev said in an interview with DW.
Aliyev acknowledged the abundant critical response to Ismayilova's sentence, but at the same time he accused western democracies of inaction.
"Yes, they are calling for her release," he said.
"But this isn't enough. They could curtail business with [President] Aliyev, for instance, or government ties. Or they could make their voice much stronger. Azerbaijan is part of the Council of Europe, and is bound to very serious international standards including freedom of speech. The Council of Europe has now turned into a joke, when journalists - and even politicians - are thrown in jail for criticizing the government."
President Aliyev, 53, has repeatedly denied accusations of rights abuses, while his administration has dismissed Ismayilova's work as part of a larger smear campaign. In a leaked document provided by WikiLeaks in 2009, Aliyev was shown to have described Ismayilova as an "enemy of the state."
Her former boss told DW that she might be more dangerous to Baku from behind bars than she was in freedom.
"She said it at her trial: 'You can only stop me by killing me.' Khadija has already begun raising issues about the rights of prisoners. And we - her friends and colleagues - are going to continue her investigative work. What she is doing is so important for us, but also for the whole country. We are so proud of her, and we will fight for her as long as it takes."
glb/jr (Reuters, AFP, AP)
You can listen to the full interview with Kenan Aliyev, conducted by Neil King, on DW's radio weekly WorldLink program. It will be available on the WorldLink page as of Friday.