An obscure legal case in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is leaping into the headlines. And it's mainly because Amal Clooney has gotten involved.
In fact, she has become the target of personal attacks by Azerbaijan's government-controlled media.
Amal Clooney is a very successful British attorney, known for taking on difficult human rights cases. She's also the wife of actor George Clooney.
Her client in this case is Khadija Ismayilova, a 39-year old investigative reporter.
“She’s an extraordinary person actually,” says Natalia Antelava, a journalist based in Tblisi in neighboring Georgia. “I know her personally.”
“She is an incredibly courageous woman,” says Antelava, “who has for years been digging up dirt on the Azeri government and exposing them, and has infuriated the government of Azerbaijan.”
Antelava says Ismayilova’s journalism is extremely solid. “She’s won numerous awards … and I would say she’s probably the only real investigative journalist in the entire Caucasus region, and she’s done some very impressive reporting.”
While tackling stories of corruption and money laundering related to construction projects in the capital, Baku, Ismayilova was warned to stop. She did not. What happened next was the release of an intimate sex tape recorded on a camera apparently illegally installed in her bedroom. Her defense team says this was an attempt to blackmail her into silence.
“That really was the beginning of her troubles,” says Antelava.
Ismayilova was then charged with "inciting attempted suicide" in a co-worker and jailed, even though the co-worker in question testified in court that Ismayilova had nothing to do with his failed suicide attempt. She remained in detention illegally for months until the government presented new charges for unspecified ‘economic crimes,’ for which Ismayilova is currently serving seven years in prison.
Amal Clooney announced on NBC’s Meet the Press last weekend that she is taking on the case, and planning to take it to the European Court.
That announcement led to a furious attack on her by Azerbaijan’s media, which is all state-controlled. Antelava says that’s an indication of how embarrassed the government is over Clooney’s involvement.
They accused her of harboring a vendetta against Turkic countries (Azeri is a Turkic language).
They also accused her of being Armenian. That’s an extremely loaded term in Azerbaijan, which is a historic enemy of its neighbour, Armenia. But it’s also not true. Amal Clooney is British, but the child of parents from Lebanon’s Druze and Sunni Muslim communities.
“I think for domestic consumption, this sort of thing works,” says Antelava. “You know, here is some Armenian, same famous Armenian that you’ve vaguely heard about, and the reason she’s doing that is not because she is a lawyer who wants to help someone who’s in need of her help, but because she’s Armenian.”