Khadija Ismayilova, Truthdigger and Azerbaijani Journalist, Released from Prison
On May 25, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan made the decision to reduce and suspend the sentence of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova, who is part of Truthdig’s Global Voices initiative and has been featured as a Truthdigger of the Week, was arrested in December 2014 on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney took up Ismayilova’s case earlier this year, angering Azerbaijani elites, and Clooney’s team submitted her case to the European Court of Human Rights in March, although it’s unclear if this was a factor in Ismayilova’s sudden release.
According to the BBC, Ismayilova was originally sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison, but the court reduced her sentence to “a suspended three and a half year term.” Critics have “argue[d] she was singled out for investigating businesses close to the family of President Ilham Aliyev.”
The BBC continues:
Ismayilova had herself made allegations of massive embezzlement of oil funds by government ministers. During her trial she said it was not a coincidence that she had been charged with embezzlement and tax evasion, as these were the crimes she had written and spoken about.
The reason behind the court’s decision to release Ms Ismayilova is unclear. But Ms Clooney’s team had submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights in March and a decision was expected.
Outside court Ms Ismayilova told reporters that her arrest had been solely for political reasons. “I will of course go further to the European Court (of Human Rights) and I will hold the Azerbaijani government responsible for keeping me in prison for a year and a half, keeping me out of my job and (away from) my family”.
Truthdig named Ismayilova a Truthdigger in January 2015, a month after her arrest. A person close to Ismayilova told Truthdig at the time that she was “the last effective big-name, pro-public-dissident journalist the country had.” Ismayilova was also able to sneak a letter out of her prison cell in late 2014, outraging the authorities. In it, she shared her hope for the work of other investigative journalists and said:
You all know why I am here in prison. Uncovering corruption is the real reason. And the only way to prove oppressive regimes wrong is to continue uncovering corruption, to continue defending the rights of oppressed people. Yes, there is a price to pay. But it is worth it!
Prior to her prison sentence, Ismayilova had a daily talk show on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), although after Ismayilova’s arrest, the Azerbaijani government shut down RFE’s offices in the country. RFE/RL expressed their joy on hearing about Ismayilova’s release from prison but also noted the injustices that had occurred. The organization wrote:
Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement calling Ismayilova’s release “a very positive step.”
“Unfortunately, Ismayilova’s sentence has only been suspended, and I call on the authorities to drop all charges against her and release the remaining imprisoned journalists,” Mijatovic wrote…
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a press release that the decision was “cause for celebration, but does not erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges.”
Ismayilova’s mother wrote on Facebook, “I am very happy about her release,” and she shared her gratitude to “investigative journalists for continuing her work” while Ismayilova was in prison.
Ismayilova herself added:
My arrest was undertaken solely for political reasons because President Aliyev and his clique decided to get rid of any criticism against them. So it was part of the oppressive actions against human rights activists, journalists and NGO leaders. Today the Supreme Court decided that 2 out of the 4 remaining charges against me were false and I have been proven unguilty in two of them. In the remaining two — illegal entrepreneurship and the tax evasion — the charge are still remaining and I have 3.5 years of conditional arrest. If I commit anything within 5 years I will be arrested for 3 of the 6 years. So that is the Supreme Court decision. I will of course go further to the European court and will fight until proven unguilty on all charges. I will hold the Azerbaijani government responsible for keeping me a year and a half in prison – and for keeping me out of my job, out of my family, out of my students. The government will be held responsible for all of this.
Ismayilova’s Twitter also shared a photo of her release:
Khadija’s first photo after jail pic.twitter.com/sj358k5WdU
— Khadija Ismayilova (@Khadija_Ismayil) May 25, 2016
RFE/RL also notes that in honor of Ismayilova’s 40th birthday on May 27, an “international coalition of activists” is organizing “rallies in 40 cities around the world” to “call for Ismayilova’s full acquittal and for the release of Azerbaijan’s other political prisoners.”
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