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Rights groups petition Azerbaijan over journalist smear campaign


Rights groups on Wednesday called on Azerbaijan to investigate the apparent renewal of a smear campaign against a leading investigative journalist that has seen a stream of covertly-filmed sex tapes released online.

Award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova, of Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani service, has accused strongman President Ilham Aliyev of being behind the bid to blackmail her into stopping reporting on high-level corruption in the country.

In a letter to Aliyev posted online Wednesday, a coalition of 11 non-governmental organisations -- including journalist watchdog Reporters Without Borders -- said that several explicit videos purported to be of Ismayilova have been leaked online in recent months.

"We urge you to take immediate and concrete steps to ensure the prompt, thorough, effective and transparent investigation of the unacceptable invasion of privacy of Khadija Ismayilova, the threats against her, and their interference with her work," the letter said.

A first secretly filmed video of Ismayilova having sex with her boyfriend was leaked online in March 2012.

The government pledged to bring those behind the footage to justice but no one has so far been prosecuted over the film.

The Azerbaijani authorities have consistently rejected accusations that free speech is seriously limited by restrictive legislation, official censorship, punitive prosecutions and assaults on journalists.

Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss, faces presidential elections in October.

Human rights activists have accused authorities in the oil-rich state of stepping up a campaign to stifle opposition and strangle criticism in the run-up to the election.