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Khadija Ismayilova is one of the most famous investigative journalists in Azerbaijan. In September 2015 she was accused of tax crimes and imprisoned for 7.5 years.
After an international campaign in defense of Ismayilova, a court reviewed the sentence and suspended the sentence. The journalist was released from prison. Later, the court once again lightened the sentence.
The journalist and her lawyers asserted that Ismayilova’s case is a political one, given that the Radio Liberty correspondent researched corruption in Azerbaijan, including within the ranks of the ruling family.
From Ismayilova’s publications, it became clear that the Azerbaijani government gave the president’s family rights to a lucrative gold field. In 2014 Khadija Ismayilova wrote that Aliyev’s two daughters control one of the country’s main mobile operators, Azercell, via an offshore company. Also, according to her data, the Aliyev family controls a minimum of six luxurious hotels in Baku, and Aliyev’s daughter Leyla has a luxurious residence in the Moscow suburb, Rublevka.
Khadija Ismayilova was interviewed by laureate for Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich.
— Tell me, Khadija, even in your voice one can hear such energy as would indicate that you still have a strong potential for resistance. And tell me, why is it that recently women are the people who resist, the people who have managed to break free from this despair that at present has overwhelmed and paralyzed very many of the intelligentsia, very many honest people. You have Savchenko, you have other examples. What do you think this means?
— To tell the truth, I don’t really like discussions based around gender, but since I don’t believe in a difference between, that is, that there are serious differences, but…
— Khadija, I’m not
speaking of gendered differences
, I’m speaking of why women seem to have broken out, women, and when I was covering the war in Afghanistan and then met with woman journalists who were also writing about the war in Afghanistan, more often than not these were women. This isn’t a matter of
gendering the discussion
. The thing is, it might simply be that we haven’t previously been doing this, and we don’t have this despair that men have.
— I don’t know, maybe this has something to do precisely with wars. Because very many men, they either went to fight, and some didn’t return. After the end of combat in Karabakh, for example, when the conflict was frozen, many men left for Russia or for other countries to pursue a wage, in principle the mobile and energetic part of the population left. And women wound up having to do very many things. Maybe this is one of the reasons. Maybe another reasons is that we, women, sort of believed in the idea that for women it’s easier, women aren’t imprisoned, they don’t treat women so harshly as men, etc. For some reason we believed this.
This turned out not to be true. They imprison women. They intimidate women. They treat women poorly. There have been woman activists against whom they’ve used electroshock and torture. In reality, yes, statistics really do show that the majority of investigative journalists are women. I don’t know the reasons; sociologists would probably understand the reasons a bit better. But yes, this is a fact – women have wound up having to take a lot on themselves in recent times.
— Do people tell you that you are an idealist?
— Oh, people often tell me this. People often tell me: “You’re a romantic, you’re an idealist”. I remember, I was called to the Ministry of National Security (MNS) – this was before the reforms, before the arrest – they called me to the MNS, tried to push a document on me, get me to sign it, saying that I won’t write any more about the murder of the journalist Elmar Huseynov. And I sat in that office for a whole three hours, and every other question they told me that I am a romantic. Yes.
— And how did you answer them?
— I smiled at all of this, that is to say, the entire time I turned this all into a joke and said that probably this really isn’t such a bad thing. I somehow asked the investigator whether he was planning to ask me on a date, since he’s talking so much about romanticism. Yes, I joked around. But it’s as if they don’t believe in the future. They live in the present day. They think that one needs to thieve as much as possible. I think that their problem, among other things, is that they don’t believe in their own future, nor in our collective future. If they believed in the future, they would think about their reputation, not about how to get rich as quick as possible.
— But, tell me, there’s a second thing,
idealism is all well and good
, but you likely were also told, when you began to unearth these things, that you might simply be killed. Do you not fear death?
— Well, you know, from a dramaturgic point of view they sort of constructed the story incorrectly. They began with the most powerful weapon. The worst thing that can be done to a woman in Azerbaijan is to shoot a film of her; that is, to make a film of her in intimate situations and then blackmail her. This is worse than if they would just kill you, imprison you, torture and so on. And they did this at the very beginning. After this, nothing is frightening. You know, not at all frightening.
— But I know you got out of that situation is a dignified manner, and probably this actually
did good for you with many people.
— Well, you know, I didn’t know that this, that is, this tactic, this rebuke that I put forward, would work out. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how I should react. This had happened before with other female journalists. And they declined to struggle, they abandoned altogether their work and so on. And when this happened to me, we had discussed this before the fact, we had joked about this, and I even bought a travel tent, so that we could do this there, so that they couldn’t film us. You know, Muammar Gaddafi travels everywhere with his own tent, yeah? And I bought a tent, well, not the sort that Gaddafi has, of course, with much less space, of course, but there it is, we’ll we in the tent, so that you don’t get filmed. But in the tent is was uncomfortable – dark, cramped, etc. So we decided, that is somehow it ended up how it did, somehow it ended up how it did.
But I didn’t know how to react, and when this all happened, when this letter arrived, I remember that first was rage, and rage was stronger than fear. Then, after a few hours, the fear began. But not that they would publish this; rather, fear that I might give in. And what did I do – I immediately announced the topics of my investigations. I worked then on three or four topics simultaneously. I immediately announced the topics of my investigations, so that afterwards there was no possibility of backing down. That is, I prohibited myself from backing down, because to back down is to allow them to do more and more with us. To back down is to allow them to feel they are the victors. To back down means that afterwards you have to live with this.
And when I place this fear on the scales, and the problem exists, that is, the fear exists before the problem even takes place. You fear this, fear, fear this, and then, when it all takes place, then you’ve already got nothing to fear, it’s already passed. But if I would have backed down, and they wouldn’t have put this film out there for general viewing, I would have had to live with this fear for the rest of my life. I didn’t want this. I don’t want to leave the country and then live with the feeling that, like now, for example, after this situation with the blackmail, I don’t want to leave the country and then live all my life with the feeling that I had to run, it would be frightful for me, I ran, they managed to make me run. I don’t want to live with this feeling.
You know, things didn’t work out in our favor, didn’t work out for our country, our people. We lost this war, occupied land, very many refugees, displaced people, and very many people living with this loser complex. I don’t want to live with a loser complex connected with my personal life. I will make the decisions that I can make myself, and I won’t allow them to force me to feel like a loser for the rest of my life.
— And how do you feel about betrayal? When your boyfriend couldn’t hold out, betrayed you. This was probably even harder? After all, life is made up of these things, not only of the big things, that you are an investigator. All the same, you come home, drink a tea, lie in bed alone. And there was this person that you trusted, and suddenly it turned out he’s a traitor.
— Well, you know, I don’t have any explicit facts that this person betrayed me. But the situation… there was a funny situation with that guy who gave a statement about me, a complaint, but this wasn’t that instance. We were friends. That is, this wasn’t that instance of intimacy. But before this there was an instance, at the time of the blackmail, and to this day people ask me whether I’m sure that this young man that I was with wasn’t part of this plan. Put I’m not sure, I don’t know. But I made a decision that this is sort of very personal. I made a decision that I don’t need to allow anyone very close, all the way to my heart.
I made this decision long ago. It sort of… that is, that instance at the time of the arrest, it’s not that sort, in no way connected with the heart, has nothing to do with affairs of the heart. But the situation, that is, they try to get to any person with whom I’m friends or with whom I have relations. Several people even told me that they were approached, and we have to break off relations.
— Tell me, when you were in prison, when you knew that it could be five, even seven years, were there really no such minutes when…
— Well, seven years is seven years. Nelson Mandela was in for twenty-seven.
— No, you are nevertheless an idealist in a good sense, yes.
— Yes, but you know, one can concentrate… I’m probably just an optimist. I love to see water in the glass. That is, I love to speak of the full half of the glass. But…
— Yes, yes, in you there is such an innate strength.
— When you come up against problems, it’s better to think not about the problems themselves, but about how, what to do in order to resolve this problem. And if it’s not possible to resolve it, I think all the time about nice I am, I endure even this; how strong I am, I can get through even this. And I like to think about this as if, this is somehow not very modest, but it’s better not to concentrate on the problems themselves, but rather on how you will solve them, or how you will get around them, or how you will endure them. And then, sort of…
— And in prison, for whole days on end?
— And in prison the exact same. In prison humor helped a lot. My colleague Ayaz also works at Radio Liberty, he was in the Ministry of National Security prison, and he’s always telling tales of his life in prison. He was in solitary confinement at the Ministry of National Security for almost a year, and he told jokes about solitary confinement, about how he joked all the time with the jailors and so on. All his stories helped me a lot, the whole time I turned everything into a joke. For example, the first night, I remember already in solitary, in quarantine, where the mattress was all lumpy and it was very difficult for me to lie on it, and all the time I thought about… at first I thought that this is very uncomfortable, I’ll have to be like this for a very long time, and then I thought that I wanted to start doing yoga – and here you are, a mattress for yoga. For example, even when there are problems with the toilet, there they have Asian style toilets, etc., and all the time you think about how to extract something good from this bad situation. When you concentrate on this, it’s much easier, and all the time you turn everything into a joke, you say that you like cold food, you say that you like… “You’re not going to open the window? I like it. I like it in the punitive cell, because here I can see the stars through the window, and this is impossible in my cell.”
And when they see that you aren’t suffering… My girl friend told me, this isn’t at all an anecdote, this is a story that really took place, she lived for a long time in Moscow, and their neighbor lady – somehow a sexual maniac wound up coming after her into the apartment block. He pushed her against the wall and began to try to undress her, and she was dumbfounded by all this, she was in shock, and instead of “Help!” she began to yell “Thank you!” And a rapist’s strength is drawn from resistance, and when this resistance isn’t there, he doesn’t see that the person is suffering, he loses all desire. And he just hit her on the cheek and left.
Our law-enforcement agencies are like this rapist. That is, they have this strength that is drawn from resistance, suffering. And when they don’t see tears, don’t see resistance, don’t see that a person is rattled, they lose their desire. I think that I can even give many examples, but one concrete example from the punitive cell. I wrote an article in the newspaper and I was sent to the punitive cell, and the next day they brought me back, brought me onto a rug before the prison warden. And when I entered the room, the first think I said was, “If you think that it’s tough for me there, this isn’t true, please, leave me there; I like it, it’s quiet there, I can read and see the stars from the window. That is, when I’m in my cell, I can only see these stars and moon on your epaulets. And so please, leave me in the punitive cell.” He got rushed, he had planned to offer a deal: you don’t write anymore and we won’t put you in the punitive cell. But the deal was already undermined, because I liked it in the punitive cell. After this I wasn’t put in the punitive cell even once.
— You don’t get tired from this endless resistance?
— You know, each time when I see…
— There are no moments when; I have moments of just dismay in the face of human stupidity, dim-wittedness, this sort of impenetrability of vice, which completely surrounds us. Not long ago we believed in a democratic, new Russia, and now it turns out that this Russia already doesn’t exist. And now it seems that the Middle Ages are coming.
— It happens, why not? It happens. For example, after the blackmail, that is, after we found all these cables, this was a very depressing moment, when we discovered the cables leading from the room and from the bathroom. It’s sort of strange, I was prepared for the fact that they would shoot the bedroom, but I wasn’t prepared for them to also shoot the bathroom. We uncovered these cables, and afterwards for a week my body stopped working, I couldn’t, I didn’t go to the toilet, I didn’t go to the bathroom. That is, I couldn’t just go to the bathroom. I already lived in a different apartment and so on, but for me this was so, I don’t know, everything just stopped for me, my whole system stopped.
And then one of my former students came, that is, a colleague, and she said, “Let’s do some research into the gold fields”. This was that moment when I thought that this was it, that not one woman would want to do this anymore, that nobody would want to do this. And then this student came along, a woman, and said, “Let’s do some research”. And I don’t know, I probably owe my life to this girl, because suddenly my body started working, everything opened up.