Azerbaijan: Journalist’s allegations of politically-motivated sex-smear campaign set for court judgement

Later this week, human rights judges will reveal their decision in a complaint which centres on an alleged politically-motivated sex smear campaign against a prominent Azerbaijan journalist.

The European Court of Human Rights is scheduled to deliver its judgement on the complaint Khadija Ismayilova v. Azerbaijan (nos. 65286/13 and 57270/14) on Thursday 10 January.

The applicant, Khadija Rovshan qizi Ismayilova, is an Azerbaijani national who was born in 1976 and lives in Baku. She has worked as an investigative journalist since 2005, reporting in particular for Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Her work has often been highly critical of the government. In particular between 2010 and 2012 she investigated and reported on alleged corruption by the Azerbaijani President’s family.

In March 2012, Ismayilova received a threatening letter with still pictures taken from a video of her and her then boyfriend having sexual intercourse. The video had been filmed in the bedroom of her flat with a hidden camera. The letter, posted from Moscow, stated “Whore, refrain from what you are doing, otherwise you will be shamed!”

Soon after, the video was posted on the Internet. Another two intimate videos were disseminated in 2013. Around the same time as the posting of the first video, three state-controlled newspapers ran stories accusing her of a lack of professionalism, anti-government bias and immoral behaviour.

Ismayilova discovered many hidden cameras in her flat, a newly installed second telephone line and data wires used to transmit footage from the cameras.

The prosecuting authorities launched criminal proceedings over the threatening letter and the covert filming. Several procedural steps were taken, including questioning Ismayilova and granting her request to take a formal statement from the telephone engineer (an employee of State owned Baktelekom) who admitted that he had been ordered to install a second telephone line in Ismayilova’s flat and to trace wires to it.

Between April 2012 and August 2013, the authorities also ordered an expert examination of the threatening letter’s postal packaging, the pictures it contained and the wires found in the flat.

In response to Ismayilova’s public complaints about the alleged ineffectiveness of the investigation, the prosecuting authorities published a status report in April 2012 noting that they had questioned a number of witnesses, including Ismayilova’s boyfriend, friends, colleagues and members of her family.

Ismayilova immediately lodged a civil claim, arguing that the report had disclosed information on her private life, namely the full names and occupations of her friends, colleagues and family, as well as her home address and the identity of the boyfriend who had featured in the video.

Her claim was dismissed, as were all her subsequent appeals. The courts found in particular that the purpose of the report had been to counter the possibility of people forming a negative opinion about the prosecuting authorities on account of Ismayilova’s complaints in public about the ineffectiveness of their investigation into her case.

Between 2013 and 2014, Ismayilova lodged a number of unsuccessful complaints with the domestic courts, alleging that the prosecuting authorities were delaying the investigation and, in response to her enquiries, had only vaguely indicated that the investigation was still ongoing.

Ismayilova has another application (no. 30778/15) with the European Court concerning her arrest and detention in 2014 for large-scale misappropriation and tax evasion as well as abuse of power when working for Azadliq Radio. She was partially acquitted in 2016 and released.

Relying on Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life, the home and the correspondence), Ismayilova alleges that the state was either directly responsible for the very serious intrusions into her private life, namely the threatening letter, the hidden cameras in her bedroom and the posting of intimate video recordings online, or, in any event, did not comply with its duty to take measures to protect her privacy rights by failing to conduct an effective investigation and identify those responsible.

She further alleges under the same article that the status report disclosed an excessive amount of sensitive personal information collected during the course of the investigation,which added to her feeling of being in danger. Lastly, relying on Article 10 (freedom of expression), she argues that the state was either directly involved in or failed to take steps to prevent the systematic smear campaign against her.

Ismayilova submits in particular that the harassment in her case is part of a pattern of politically motivated smear campaigns against journalists in Azerbaijan.

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