Khadija Ismailova’s decades-long fight against corruption in Azerbaijan

LONDON, 27 JULY 2021 – She was threatened, harassed, attacked and sent to prison for 2.5 years, but it only made Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova more determined to pursue the truth. For years she’s been exposing the corrupt underbelly of the Azerbaijani elite, linking it to international firms and European politicians. Her work, including the Panama Papers investigations, has gained her notoriety all over the world, but also attracted powerful enemies. It is hardly surprising that most recently she featured as one of the victims of the Pegasus spyware.

In the latest episode of Trouble with the Truth, Khadija talks about the trials of an independent journalist in Azerbaijan, on her investigations into the Azerbaijani ‘Laundramat’, on what kept her spirits high when she was in prison and her criticism of ECHR mechanisms.

The full transcript of the interview is available below:

Lana: Hello and welcome to our most honourable guest Khadija Ismailova. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that she is one of the most renowned investigative journalists globally, and of course in Azerbaijan, and she got in a lot of trouble for it, and we’ll talk about it in more detail today. Thank you so much for joining me today, Khadija.

Khadija: Thank you and the pleasure is mine.

Lana: Let’s set the scene. First of all, Azerbaijan has one of the worst records when it comes to press freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranked it 168 out of 80. I mean, that’s quite impressive, and the Justice for Journalists Foundation recently released a report that detailed all the abuse that Azerbaijani independent journalists faced for doing their work and the figures were staggering. 194 journalists were attacked, virtually and in real life. They’ve been harassed, beaten, imprisoned. Do you think that the situation with press freedom in Azerbaijan has been deteriorating over the past year, and if so, why?

Khadija: Well, yes. Azerbaijan is a country ruled by an autocratic regime, and its regime is corrupt and violent. So, we have been experiencing limitations of press freedom, like, since then, since always, so but and it’s been deteriorating, all the time. But yes, We are in our one in one of our worst periods now. We have journalists in prison, but most importantly, the most crucially, we have independent media that is institutionally paralyzed in Azerbaijan. So, whenever we have independent media in Azerbaijan, it is either in exile or working on a very small scale, and they have to be almost invisible, not to be dealt with. So that’s, that’s the most crucial problem because we have zero opposition media in print. We have zero independent media in print. We have seen two independent websites that are blocked in the country. Then, the media that is broadcasting, airing some information, or distributing some information from exile is also blocked in the country. Most of the international news media channels are also blocked, including the OCCRP[1] website, which I’m working for. They are blocked inside the country. And we are not even talking about the broadcast media because the government fully controls broadcast media. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s with a private or state-funded, it’s all fully controlled by the government, either through the relatives of the ruling family or the man of the ruling family. So, what the state-funded or government-funded, government-controlled media does, it’s basically it’s engaged in smear campaigns again against independent minds or opposition, people parties and the figures. So, so they are using the media control by them as a typical of punishment against those who dare to criticise, although we have few journalists in prison, some of them have been arrested, but have been given, have been arrested for the crime but have been given harsher, the sentences, because they are critical. Some of them are arrested just for daring to criticise or not be refusing to be controlled by the government. 

So, this is basically the main picture of Azerbaijani media. But also, there are other hardships of being in the neighbourhood of Russia, being in the frontline, like being a frontline country. One of the most devastating news was losing two colleagues in landmine blasts in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the area is not safe for journalists, and there are two aspects here. One of them is that the conflict itself remains unsolved until Armenia and Azerbaijan agree to stop any hostilities and Armenia gives the maps of contaminated areas. The areas are contaminated with landmines. The other issue is that the government of Azerbaijan do not make enough efforts to train journalists to work for the safety measures and work in the frontlines and do not enrol international organisations.

Lana: And obviously, you’ve been the target of the regime yourself. I still remember the video after you being released, you know, go back in time, and seeing pictures after just following a case so closely, not hope what feels my friend coming up to enjoy freedom. For your investigations into Ilham Aliev’s family and his entourage, you faced persecution, and you’ve handed a seven-year sentence back in 2015, of which you spent one and a half years in prison. Then you’re banned from travelling outside as well. The whole world followed your case. I think it was just such a powerful and big campaign that just demonstrated that you know if we’re all bound together we can really make a difference, but the facts are still there, you know that you have the sentences on your permanent record. After you came out of prison and went back home and carried on your work. How does it feel to did you notice that you’re doing a different kind of work did it feel very different than before all of this has happened to you?

Khadija: Two things, maybe. Maybe I should be grateful to have an expression, for one thing, is that I gained a lot of friends or friends, like people who I have never even seen and I’ve been receiving a lot of friendly messages during the prison time, and afterwards, and, like, you describe yourself people, whom I’ve never seen, or I’ve never heard of. They’ve been sympathising with my case and sending their positive energy. And that’s, that’s maybe the thing that I have to be grateful to become a lead for because if there will be no troubles, there will be no, no such experiences as well. But here’s, of course, Both prison and what happened before, then all the persecution, it’s not. It’s not something that I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience all of this. Also, the second thing is that when I got out of prison, I saw several other journalists, like 100 more than hundreds of journalists, have been united in the project run by OCCRP. They’ve been continuing the investigations, and that’s, that’s, the practice actually that went while they were doing it, several other journalists started doing investigations, like cross border investigations about the Aliev’s wealth, a wealth of the other ministers and now we are seeing award-winning investigations made directly by OCCRP authors, including anonymous Azerbaijani journalists who did not say their stories for safety reasons, but their impact. Then, the impact of their stories is incredible. 

Lana: That’s what I find so amazing that the potential danger of investigative journalism does not deter people, and you know, despite all the persecution harassment, more and more people joining this profession as I said, and I want to talk more about the Panama Papers as well because obviously, you’ve been investigating Azerbaijani Laundromat for many years now, if not decades. You’ve uncovered some very impressive information just showing the extent of Aliev’s families grip on all the businesses and all the major money-making businesses across Azerbaijan, and when the Panama Leeks came first in 2016, winning every single journalistic award and uniting journalists from all over the world. It seemed like everything will change. And now, five years later, do you think much has changed since the revelations?

Khadija: Well, actually, my Panama Papers started much earlier in 2011. We published the first Panama story related to Aliev’s companies. And I have to mention here that I’m hopefully going to scrape the government database for common use. And so we, journalists, could use that scraper database for searching Panama. Commercial databases for the companies using just search name, searching by names, or by company name. So many tasks to ethical hackers who do the ethical job are not violating the law, they work on open databases, but they do in searchable and use user friendly for journalists. So, when this happened with those, we thought that it would be a huge scandal. But it wasn’t; it wasn’t before that they were like BVI papers, came out, and some companies have been revealed back then. Then there was Panama Papers. Then there were Luxembourg papers, then the others, other databases leak, Malta papers, lots of papers, leaks that could change a lot in the world, but that didn’t. Corruption became more transparent. Since then, people know more about corruption, the world community the international executives are failing to adjust the systems to the challenges of corruption, the challenges of the fight, fighting corruption in the modern world. So it’s now there is another challenge with Bitcoin. Simple bitcoins is for corrupt purposes. So it’s basically the world order. Well, the world is not orderly. Actually, there is no order in the world, helping to fight corruption or stop corruption, but maybe it’s designed for hiding it, or maybe it’s designed to cover all those crimes. Basically, what we see now, bad guys are uniting together in criminal networks like presidents of different countries govern government people from different countries they’re uniting in criminal networks. They do have a lot to all. To create the correct colour schemes and journalists, law enforcement is lagging behind. They are not powerful enough to stop the law enforcement demand powerful enough to stop or the entire inventions are unclear. So we don’t see much results of our work. After Danske bank story at a landmark investigation. I thought that it’s the first time I see the real result of my stories.

Lana: Could you talk me through the story, if you don’t mind? 

Khadija: The landmark investigation is basically there were four companies in Azerbaijan, created by Azerbaijanis who have been money laundering for years, so Danske bank. The surname branch talent branch of the Danske Bank. And we saw that politicians made payments to the European politicians to silence their criticism and organisations like the Council of Europe. Then we saw, according to the bank documents, that some government officials were paying for their health care services, education needs for their children using that laundromat scheme. Then we saw mysterious payments by a Russian arms dealer to the son of an official who has been negotiating the Arms deal between Azerbaijan and Russia. We saw a lot of payments that have no explanation and was clear, money laundering scheme. In Azerbaijan, of course, no effective official investigation had been started. A couple of small bank workers were arrested, and they were also charged with crimes related to Laundromat. But, but they were not the owners of that money. They are the owners of the money, those who have been laundering their own money they have been set aside, they have not been called for any investigation. But on the other hand, in Europe, European structures started investigations against European politicians who received money through that laundromat.

They also several members of parliament in Germany. Belgium had lots of states in Parliament. They have been investigated, and they’ve said it’s a huge scandal in Europe. And also, The British government started they made more efforts to bring transparency into unexplained wealth. Coming and having been invested in Great Britain. So as a result, our corrupt officials who are hiding their money in Great Britain now are taking their money to Dubai and other places where they can hide them better, but we journalists are also working, and we work in international networks also trying to bring, more expertise from the Middle East, Singapore or other places where, where they always became more popular destinations for corrupt wealth.

Lana: So I guess that’s one of the good outcomes. These transnational corruption scandals cause the boom in investigative journalism. I mean, the kind of tactics and techniques used by investigative journalists such as yourself or Bellingcat, they’re just amazing. It’s more akin to detective work. It’s very reassuring seeing that, that you’re holding on to the account.

Khadija: We are not calling anyone to account, we are journalists, and that is what we do. We uncover the crimes, but bringing into account is the job of law enforcement, and it’s important that law enforcement comes along with this process, and they do their job. It doesn’t happen in the countries like Azerbaijan, but then there should be some international mechanisms, international law enforcement, or sanction measures that would help to clean up a little bit, at least international political structures from these crimes. Also, all these investigations must be mainly used as a matter of investigation for the international organisations fighting corruption, and it would be great if they would initiate sanctioned and corrupt officials. The problem of the corrupt officials, what do they do? They deprive their own citizens from the roots of democracy, democratic and transparent society, for example, ordinary Azerbaijani that does not have access to good education, but wouldn’t have the budget and then does not have access to good health care, and the official who deprives him of these groups. He enjoys the products of democracy in the UK, the US, in other European countries. They enjoy those goods because they have money stolen in the process of depriving their own citizens. This is the ordinary purpose of democracy. So, when, so they can enjoy education opportunities, investment opportunities, healthcare opportunities, and the other countries because they have money, and the most money out of scope, so, so much one we see stealing public money is becoming a cool thing, because they don’t get punished anywhere. They shake hands with European leaders and officials. They become members of the inter-parliamentary groups, they’re welcomed everywhere because they have money. It’s now the time to show that stealing something is not cool. These people should not be left in Europe, they should not be allowed to buy education with their corrupt money, so they have children. If the money is not corrupt, let their children study, but they buy the education with corrupt money that should not be allowed. 

Lana: I find it very interesting that, on the one hand, you have these European institutions designed to hold governments such as Aliev’s government to account and on the other hand, you only have all the guards enjoy all the services that countries like the UK or France have to provide, sending their kids to private boarding schools, buying up all flats in Belgravia using PR agencies that help them clear up their reputation which is the Azerbaijani elite are quite famous for. But there is something good for selling in Europe it’s, still these democratic institutions that are still upholding certain values and 2020 European Court of Human Rights ruled that your rights have been violated when you were arrested, and they gave you compensation, of course, your freedom and the time that you spent in prison, they can be compensated, it’s invaluable. But when you receive that ruling, how did that make you feel? 

Khadija: The last ruling was the fourth case that I won in the European Court of Human Rights. In all of them, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in my favour but, but there are also some shortcomings, and that measures as well because, yes, they do or the Azerbaijani government to pay compensation and the Azerbaijani government pays it, like, very late, and with delays and so on but okay they pay the compensation, but it’s not about the compensation. The general measure says if any government refuses to fulfil, they have to also restore the justice, it is not just about compensation. I need my name to be cleared from the records. And I need those who ruled as my freedom unlawfully, they should be brought to justice. This has to happen. And the Azerbaijani government doesn’t do that. That’s a problem. So, the European Court of Human Rights has lots of cases Azerbaijan is one of the most complaining countries, maybe leader per capita. Why? All these rulings, do not affect the internal justice system. They do not reform the internal justice system in order to reduce the number of those cases, and they don’t stop. They don’t stop political persecution, using the judges and using that law enforcement, because they just pay and that’s it. So I think it’s important that the European institutions follow up on their decisions. They look, and this is happening right now, till the July 31, Azerbaijani Government has given the time to explain what they will do to comply with general measures, including advising the Supreme Court and overrule the previous decisions and out, make my arrest. That should be built on. So, in all my cases when the government, you know, this is the European Court of Human Rights, they start communication and offer a settlement to both sides. And so far I have rejected every single settlement offer. Because I want the government of Azerbaijan to take a lesson for what they have to admit that that was a violation, and then to take a lesson. And I will continue doing so unless Azerbaijani Government will start taking lessons from what they are doing.

Lana: I feel like it’s a very strong and powerful note to end our interview. Thank you so much for finding time for this interview. I really appreciate it, and I’ve meant personally to talk to you and meet you for such a long time, so it’s really an honour.

Khadija: Thank you very much and I have to say it would be much more difficult. I love my profession, I love what I do. But again, it would be much more difficult without the support of so many journalists organizations, without the networks that are supporting a free press, it would be very difficult without their support and their vocal advocacy for freedom of the press worldwide. I want to thank all of them and also I want to thank our readers who appreciate, and thus keep us keep our spirit high. 

[1] OCCRP –Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project