(CN) – Siding with a journalist who was secretly filmed having sex in her own home, the European Court of Human Rights fined Azerbaijan on Thursday for violating the woman's privacy and freedom of expression.
“The court considers that the acts complained of were grave and an affront to human dignity,” the seven-judge panel wrote in a unanimous opinion.
Before a leak of the footage, investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova wrote articles that tied the daughters of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to a mining consortium that had just won a lucrative contract.
Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Liberty and for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, received a letter months later containing six intimate photographs of her and her then-boyfriend.
Followed by a smiley-face emoji, the letter warned: “Whore, refrain from what you are doing, otherwise you will be shamed!” It was sent from a Moscow address.
At the same time, various newspapers in Azerbaijan received video from which the still images were taken. The video was ignored by opposition papers, but Ismayilova soon faced a smear campaign from pro-government mouthpieces, culminating in a website named after a party opposing the Aliyev government publishing the video in full.
Ismayilova turned to the rights court in Strasbourg after Azeri authorities refused to investigate, winning a more than $19,000 judgment Thursday.
The 43-page opinion emphasized that Ismayilova “is a well-known journalist and there was a plausible link between her professional activity and the aforementioned intrusions, whose purpose was to silence her.”
Ismayilova remarked Thursday that those who tried to intimidate her remain at large.
“Justice is yet to be served,” she tweeted. “We’ll see it when perpetrators will be punished.”
Ismayilova also took to social media the day that received her threat, reporting that she would not be silenced. Such bravery has since won her various international awards, including the Right Livelihood Awards, known as the alternative Nobel Prize.
In Azerbaijan’s conservative Muslim society, the leaked footage of Ismayilova had been intended to carry a particular taboo, but she said that the effort backfired.
“Those days I was supported by Muslim groups, who harshly criticized the government for intrusion to my privacy,” she reflected today on Facebook. “I got support from groups of different views, from religious to atheists. They stood up for moral values and human rights, showing that the people of this country are more progressive than the government.”
Ranked 163rd in the most recent press freedom index, Azerbaijan has been the subject of what Reporters Without Borders called a “relentless war” against the press in which blackmail is a regular feature. Ismayilova noted that another prominent journalist in her country also has been threatened with the dissemination of intimate photos and footage.
Thursday’s ruling points to signs that the Azeri government was behind the “carefully planned and executed operation” to stain Ismayilova's reputation, which involved hiding a camera in her bedroom and disseminating the footage.
Ismayilova produced evidence a “second phone line and additional wires, through which hidden videos were transmitted out of her flat, had been connected to her flat by an employee of ATS belonging to Baktelekom, a telephone services company fully owned and controlled by the state, forming part of the official structure of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies,” the ruling states.
The journalist also noted that the three papers to attack her are effectively run by the Azerbaijan’s ruling party.
Ismayilova's rights-court fight was supported by more than a dozen press-freedom groups, including PEN International, Privacy International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship.
Ismayilova noted that her victory falls a day after a sad event for her colleague Afgan Mukhtarli, who celebrated his 45th birthday in an Azeri prison. He had been snatched on the streets of Georgia, a former Soviet republic where he worked in exile following his corruption investigations into Azeri army.
“Afgan helped me to investigate and find proofs of government’s involvement in planting camera to my bedroom,” Ismayilova wrote on Facebook.
“Let it be his belated birthday present and we are yet to achieve justice in his own case,” she added.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.