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Azeri Journalist's Jail Sentence Extended on Eve of Euro Games

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Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova

An Azeri court has ruled it will extend the imprisonment of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor who was jailed late last year. The Nasimi District Court in Baku ruled on May 14 that Ismayilova's pretrial detention period will be extended for three months.

The move is widely viewed as an act of retribution by Azeri authorities for exposing corruption linked to the country’s ruling family. Ismayilova's investigative reporting has exposed corruption by Azerbaijani government officials, and initially charged with inciting a man to attempt suicide.

“We’re profoundly disappointed. Her imprisonment has nothing to do with any wrongdoing or law, it is about silencing Khadija and RFE/RL, by any means necessary, period,” said RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic.

The new ruling continues her detention until August 24.

Political maneuvering

The man who leveled the accusation later sought to withdraw his complaint, but prosecutors have not responded publicly to that request and Ismayilova was handed additional charges in February alleging tax evasion, illegal business activities, and abuse of power.

She denies wrongdoing and says all the charges are politically motivated.

The May 14 ruling came two days after another setback for Ismayilova, who remains in jail despite calls from rights groups and foreign governments for her release.

On May 12, a separate court started a hearing into Ismayilova's appeal against a libel conviction in February, but adjourned it indefinitely.

That decision came a week after Ismayilova was honored with the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for what PEN said were "hard-hitting investigations [that] have revealed corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan."

Accepting the award on her behalf at a ceremony in New York, Emin Milli -- an Azerbaijani writer who himself was jailed in 2009 -- urged journalists and activists to "spread the word about her courage and struggle for freedom all over the world."

Calls for Ismayilova's release

On the same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke called on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to release Ismayilova.

The United States "is deeply concerned by the incarceration of all of those detained in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms," he said.

Representatives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees RFE/RL and Voice of America, repeatedly have contacted Azerbaijani officials to protest Ismayilova's incarceration.

In June, Azerbaijan will host the first-ever European Games. A group of prominent writers and editors, including many American, have written to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, urging him to demand Ismayilova's release and condemn human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

Ismayilova received the PEN American Center’s prestigious Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 5 for her “hard-hitting investigations.”

Upcoming European Games

On the eve of the first European Games, which Baku will host in June, a group of prominent writers and editors have written to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach urging him to demand Ismayilova's release and condemn human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL Chief Editor Nenad Pejic ridiculed the charges, which come one day after Ramiz Mehdiyev, Chief of Staff to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, issued a 60-page statement accusing Ismayilova of "defiance" and displaying a "destructive attitude toward well-known members of the Azerbaijani community," which "pleases [her] patrons abroad."

The statement adds that RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service is on a "disgusting path," and its employees work "for a foreign secret service."

"The arrest and detention of Khadija Ismayilova is the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. The charges brought against her today are outrageous. Khadija is being punished for her journalism," Pejic said.

Pejic added that Mehdiyev's statements were dangerous and reckless, and could be perceived as a threat against other RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service employees.

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