A number of rallies took place around the world on May 26 and 27 in support of jailed Azerbaijani investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova. As organizations, activists, and journalists gathered in London, Washington, Paris, Copenhagen, Dublin, and Brussels, Ismayilova celebrated her 40th birthday, as a free woman.
A day earlier, on May 25, unexpected news about her release from jail made international headlines. Ismayilova had been imprisoned on December 5, 2014. Convicted of illegal business dealings, tax evasion, abuse of power, and embezzlement, Ismayilova spent 538 days in prison for crimes she did not commit. The real reason for Ismayilova’s incarceration was her in-depth investigation of corruption and nepotism in President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Nina Ognianova, called Ismayilova’s trial “a farce,” while other journalists and media freedom organizations insisted the charges against her were politically motivated. “From the very beginning of her arrest, it was clear she was jailed for her investigative work. With her arrest the government thought the investigations will stop and this way it could save its image. But it failed,” Azeri blogger and Ismayilova’s friend Arzu Geybulla told Muftah via email.
Ismayilova’s work has been published by several major U.S. news outlets, such as Washington Post and The New York Times. She has also received several international awards celebrating her courageous work. As her colleagues and numerous international media organizations campaigned for her release, Ismayilova’s case became emblematic of the struggle for press freedom worldwide.
Following her release on probation, Ismayilova will remain in the country under a travel ban. Despite the dangers of being one of Azerbaijan’s leading dissenting voices, Ismayilova said she would continue her investigative work and keep fighting for other political prisoners in Azerbaijan
According to CPJ, Azerbaijan ranks among the top ten countries for censorship. Prosecution on fabricated charges, harassment, and bans on international travel are just a few ways in which the Azerbaijani government routinely cracks down on critics and dissidents.
Geybulla suggested that the government released Ismayilova in a vain attempt to save its image. “In no way does it mean that the pressure against journalists and activists is decreasing in Azerbaijan,” she added. Azerbaijan has a long history of pardoning political prisoners, in advance of international summits and deals. Ismayilova and her colleagues have criticized this practice, as undermining justice for the country’s political prisoners.
While still in prison, Ismayilova wrote a letter, published by The Washington Post, calling on President Obama to hold Aliyev accountable for human rights violations and corruption. She has also been a strong advocate of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a piece of legislation introduced by U.S. Congressman, Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), that would prohibit entry to the United States by Azerbaijani government officials and Aliyev family members, who have significantly benefited from electoral fraud, human rights abuses, or corruption, or have participated in the persecution or harassment of independent media or journalists, human rights defenders, opposition, or religious groups.
Given the success of the international campaign for Ismayilova’s release, her colleagues believe it may be possible to engage the international community in the struggle for human rights and freedom in Azerbaijan. Ismayilova’s absolute dedication to justice, together with growing global pressure from foreign governments and press freedom organizations, could, indeed, help shatter the country’s status quo.