The conviction of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova today is the latest in an effort paint a thin veneer of legal legitimacy on a determined campaign by the Azerbaijan government to silence its critics, PEN American Center said in a statement today.
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,000 US writers working to break down barriers to free expression worldwide.
Ismayilova was convicted Tuesday morning in a closed-door trial on charges of libel, tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power, and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. She was acquitted on the original charge of inciting a colleague to suicide.
According to PEN, an internationally acclaimed investigative journalist, Ismayilova had exposed the unethical business dealings of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family in a series of articles between 2010-2012. In later writing and public appearances, she revealed government wrongdoings of a more personal nature, emerging as one of the strongest advocates for jailed colleagues and human rights activists persecuted by the regime. After a years-long government campaign against her, Ismayilova was arrested on charges in December 2014, in advance of the international spotlight on the country as it prepared to host the first ever Olympic-organized European Games.
“Khadija Ismayilova’s conviction by a kangaroo court is part of a longstanding campaign by the government to banish and punish one of Azerbaijan’s most courageous and potent dissident voices,” said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “Her conviction today in a farcical closed-door trial—replete with glass cages, absurd charges, and a star witness for the prosecution who begged to recant his accusations—is a brazen effort to deter those who would scrutinize the increasing corruption of President Aliyev and his cronies. Khadija now becomes a martyr, her fearlessness and and passion to expose injustice too powerful for even a prison to contain.”
In May, Ismayilova received the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for a writer imprisoned for his or her work. Since its inception in 1987, thirty-five of the 40 writers who were in prison at the time they won PEN’s annual award have been freed, due in part to the attention and pressure generated by the prize.
According to PEN, Azerbaijan is one of the world’s most restrictive environments for free expression, where at least 26 writers are currently detained, on trial, or jailed and others are subject to regular harassment, threats, and violence. Last month, journalist Rasim Aliyev was beaten to death in broad daylight on the streets of the capital city after criticizing a star national soccer player.