PEN America said Wednesday that it celebrates the release of Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, winner of the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Ismayilova was released on probation and granted a suspended sentence in a Supreme Court decision rendered today in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
“The release on probation of Khadija Ismayilova, an intrepid force exposing corruption in Azerbaijan, is a victory for journalists everywhere who go up against the toughest regimes bent on silencing those who dare challenge them,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “Khadija’s force of personality and irrepressibility refusing to quiet her criticism even from a prison cell and her smiles and waves from behind the glass of police cars to supporters who chanted ‘Khadija! Khadija!’ galvanized one of most energetic global campaigns in memory on behalf of an individual dissident. You couldn¹t help but be inspired by her refusal to be daunted, and her release restores an essential voice of accountability in Azerbaijan.”
PEN America stressed that while the grant of probation and Khadija’s provisional release represented an important victory, the charges against her are baseless and should be dropped, enabling her to return to her journalistic work free from fear of reprisals.
PEN America awarded Ismayilova the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at its 2015 Literary Gala in New York. The Freedom to Write Award is given to an author or journalist in prison and is accompanied by a global campaign to demand the writer¹s release. The 2015 Award was accentuated by an international effort by PEN America involving the world’s foremost satirical cartoonists, who created original cartoons demanding Khadija’s release that were circulated and displayed worldwide. The grant of probation to Ismayilova makes her the 36th out of 40 jailed recipients of the PEN Freedom to Write Award over the last three decades who have subsequently been released from prison, due in part to the publicity generated by the Award.
Subsequent to winning the PEN America award Ismayilova was recognized by Human Rights Watch and was awarded the 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. She has also been the subject of an energetic campaign by a coalition of rights groups advocating for her freedom.
Ismayilova, a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested on December 5, 2014 on charges that she had incited a former colleague to commit suicide. Though she was acquitted of those charges, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office added charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Ismayilova was convicted of those charges and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on September 1, 2015, in a closed-door trial that was widely criticized for failing to meet international standards of due process and fairness.
According to PEN, Ismayilova was targeted because of her work tracing the source of Azerbaijani corruption and self-dealing to the highest rungs of the Azeri government, including President Ilham Aliyev. The recently released ‘Panama Papers’ confirmed reports Ismayilova had previously brought to light, accusing Aliyev’s family of using offshore companies to hide their wealth and ownership of shares in Azeri businesses, PEN said.