Activists and journalists were turned away by Azerbaijani authorities Monday as they attempted to visit imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova on the eve of International Women’s Day.
Ismayilova, an award–winning investigative reporter who published findings on the vast assets belonging to the family of President Ilham Aliyev, is serving a 7-plus years prison term on charges of tax evasion and abuse of power. Ismayilova worked for two years as the Baku bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, Radio Azadliq.
Ismayilova’s supporters gathered outside the prison building holding bouquets of flowers. They criticized the authorities’ decision to deny the visit.
“The fact that we were not allowed to present our gifts to her or even meet with her shows how much the government fears Khadija,” journalist Aynur Imranova told VOA. “We will not allow her name to be forgotten.”
The entourage negotiated for over an hour with the authorities, trying to at least pass on flowers to Ismayilova. But, citing prison procedures on visitation hours, the authorities refused to accommodate their requests, activists said.
Ismayilova was initially arrested and jailed on December 5, 2014, on libel charges that international human rights groups said were trumped up. She was accused of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide, charges that were later withdrawn by her accuser. Subsequently, other charges were leveled against her including tax evasion, illegal business activity and abuse of power.
Ismayilova rejected all charges as politically motivated and false, and RFE/RL characterized them as having “no basis in reality.”
Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira, told VOA that her daughter’s struggle for free speech should be highlighted on International Women’s Day.
“I congratulate our nation on the occasion of International Women’s Day, especially those women who fight for their people and for free speech,” she said. “I also wish to congratulate women who fight for improved governance. I wish them to be steadfast and brave. My word to women is that they should not fear. I am proud that my Khadija is one such person.
“Although she has been arrested, is not free, is not at home, I am proud of her. I call upon all women and my people to fight without fear for the freedom of our people, for the development of our country,” Elmira Ismayilova said.
During her time in prison, Ismayilova has translated Iranian American writer Sahar Delijani’s Children of the Jacaranda Tree into Azerbaijani. Writing the foreword to the translated edition of her book, Delijani praised Khadija for her courage.
“This is a very special translation, not only because it is my mom's mother tongue, but particularly because it has been done by Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azeri journalist, now behind bars in Baku on political charges for more than a year,” the author wrote. Delijani was born in the Evin Prison in 1983 where her mother was serving prison time for political activism in post-revolutionary Iran.
Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer married to actor George Clooney, has signed on to represent Ismayilova before the European Court of Human Rights.
Ismayilova last fall received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the National Press Club’s John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award.
“She tells me to stay strong,” her mother told VOA. “Tell everyone outside to continue the good fight.”