BAKU (Reuters) - A prominent Azerbaijani journalist known for exposing corruption among the country’s ruling elite was sentenced on Tuesday to seven-and-a-half years in jail, in a case rights groups condemned as politically motivated.
Khadija Ismayilova, 39, who works for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has investigated government corruption, business dealings of the president and his family, as well as human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
She was found guilty in Baku of embezzlement, illegal business activities, tax evasion and abuse of her position. State prosecutors had sought a nine year sentence.
Ismayilova’s defense lawyer Fariz Namazly told Reuters she planned to appeal against the verdict. “The sentencing is not justified and has been pre-ordered,” he said.
Rights activists criticized the ruling and said the case was part of a broader campaign by veteran Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to muzzle dissent, including by jailing his critics.
Baku says the country - a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic of 9 million people - enjoys full freedom of speech and a lively opposition media.
Amnesty International said Ismayilova was a prisoner of conscience and that the charges were trumped up to stop her corruption investigations, a criticism echoed by civil liberties group Freedom House.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s parliamentary arm said the ruling was a politically motivated response to her work to hold her country’s leaders accountable.
European Union human rights envoy Stavros Lambrinidis said Ismayilova “should have never have been arrested, let alone convicted” and called on Aliyev to end such “persecution”.
Britain’s minister for Europe, David Lidington, said he was troubled by the sentence and urged the Azeri authorities to review her case in a transparent manner.
Several dozen of Ismayilova’s supporters gathered outside the court, along with members of the opposition.
Ismayilova and her associates say she has long been the subject of a campaign to tarnish her reputation - including with the release of a sex tape.
“She has not committed any crimes. She is now under arrest because she strongly criticized the Aliyev regime and is one of the most popular journalists in Azerbaijan,” Arif Khacili, leader of the opposition Musavat party, said outside the court.
Despite criticism of Azerbaijan’s record on human rights, the West has courted it as an alternative to Russia as a supplier of oil and gas.
Azerbaijan jailed two rights activists in August and one more in April.
Another journalist was beaten by a group of people and died in August, with rights groups suspecting the killing may be linked to photos he had posted online showing police brutality and social discontent in Azerbaijan.
Ismayilova was found not guilty on a charge of inciting a former colleague at the radio station to attempt suicide.
Additional reporting and writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams