THE BLOG
12/30/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Is Shushing State on Azerbaijan's Detention of Khadija Ismayilova?

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

When the American ambassador to oil-rich Azerbaijan opened a veterinary laboratory in the small town of Goygol earlier this year, the U.S. embassy put out a press release to commemorate the landmark event. When Azerbaijan's government detained the country's most prominent investigative journalist earlier this month, barely a whisper was heard from America's diplomats.

Khadija Ismayilova, whose investigations into corruption cases involving the ruling family of the Caspian nation have won her an award for 'Courage in Journalism', has faced persecution by the authorities before, most notoriously when they tried to blackmail her by secretly filming her having sex and threatening to post the footage online. (She refused to back down, and the footage was promptly released onto the Internet.) In what a recent Washington Post editorial called "the latest example of how Azerbaijan has become a bleak dystopia for human rights and democracy", she was locked away on the Kafka-esque charge of "incitement to commit suicide."

According to data released earlier this month by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan is the second-worst persecutor of journalists worldwide. On a per capita basis, it jails over twice as many journalists as Iran does, and 28 times as many as get locked away in China, leading one observer to dub the forthcoming 2015 European Games in Baku the "Gulag Games'.

The Council of Europe's Secretary General promptly called for her immediate release. A representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an outfit generally known for couching any criticism in cautious diplo-speak, bluntly condemned the move as "nothing but orchestrated intimidation, which is a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice." Amnesty International denounced the charge as politically motivated, adding that:

Dissenting voices in the country frequently face trumped-up criminal charges, assault, harassment, blackmail and other reprisals from the authorities and groups associated with them. Law enforcement officials regularly resort to torture and other ill-treatment of civil society activists, with impunity.

While fellow journalists have launched a dedicated 'Free Khadija Ismayilova' campaign that is gaining strong traction on Twitter, America's diplomats have been keeping a conspicuously low profile. When I contacted the U.S. State Department asking about formal statements made in Ismayilova's defence, a press officer could only provide me with a single item, the transcript of the December 10th session of State's daily media briefing.

On that occasion, a reporter asked about Ismayilova's case, and a State Department spokesperson explained that:

"[W]e're very concerned by the arrest and pretrial detention of Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. We're deeply troubled by increased restrictions on civil society activities, including on journalists, in Azerbaijan. We are increasingly concerned that the government is not living up to its international human rights commitments and obligations. We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the universal rights of its citizens and allow them to freely express their views. Azerbaijan will be best able to ensure its future stability and prosperity by allowing a more open society. We have, of course, raised the increased restrictions on civil society and freedom of press at multiple levels in both Washington and abroad with the Government of Azerbaijan officials. I don't have anything specific as it relates to this individual case."

One week later, Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, also commented on Azerbaijan's tightening of the screws. During a brief interview, he spoke of "very serious discussions at high levels" and warned that the country's "crackdown on civil society" was jeopardizing its bilateral relationship with the United States.

However, he did not specifically refer to Ismayilova's case.

Why are America's diplomats not speaking out loudly and clearly on Khadija Ismayilova's behalf? Why has the State Department not joined Europe's diplomats in publicly demanding her immediate release from jail?

One possible explanation is that many former U.S. diplomats now have close financial ties to Azerbaijan. For example, former ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza today sits on the board of AzMeCo, an Azerbaijani company working in the oil and gas sector. He seems to have switched effortlessly from representing Washington's interests in Azerbaijan's capital Baku to representing Baku's interests in D.C. For example, following Azerbaijan's farcical presidential elections of 2013, Bryza -- identifying himself only as a former diplomat and Atlantic Council think tanker -- wrote in an op-ed that "a reformist wind may be blowing" and that "positive changes are underway."

Challenged about his commercial ties in the petro-dictatorship famously lampooned as 'Absurdistan', Bryza told the Huffington Post that much of his time as ambassador had been spent on human rights issues, including "trying to get journalists out of jail." Apparently, he managed to do so without alienating his host government. In 2011, he was presented with the Leadership Award of a D.C.-based Azerbaijani lobby group, the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (USACC), for "exceptional leadership in promoting the development of bilateral relations between the United States and Azerbaijan."

Bryza is not the first U.S. ambassador to walk through the revolving door after his Baku posting. One of his predecessors, Stanley Escudero, did exactly the same thing, and is busily doing business in Baku to this day. And sharing a place with Bryza on USACC's diplomatic roll of honor is former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who used to be co-director of the lobbying group. While still in office, Armitage described Azerbaijan's late dictator -- and father of the present dictator -- Heydar Aliyev as "a man greater than the life itself".

It remains unclear to what extent the State Department's near silence on Khadija Ismayilova's detention is due to string-pulling behind the scenes by former diplomats who now have financial ties with Baku's regime and thus a vested interest in discouraging any rocking of the bilateral boat. Indeed, Azerbaijan's frequent junkets for top U.S. decision-makers might may play an even greater role. "The direct money to politicians in trips and gifts matter more. Azerbaijan gives visiting VIP politicians diamond encrusted watches and other nice baubles which they don't report," commented an observer of the region who asked not to be named.

As Khadija Ismayilova begins her third week in jail, her supporters will be watching closely to see whether any of the American politicos who took part in an especially controversial junket to Baku will now re-wrap their gifts and speak up on her behalf.

Disclaimer: This blog was written in a private capacity, and exclusively reflects the author's own personal views. The author has no connections with Armenia or with the Armenian exile community.