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Azerbaijani RFE/RL Journalist Ismayilova Released From Prison

  • VOA News

RFE/RL Journalist Khadija Ismayilova walks out of prison, after her sentence is reduced, May 25, 2016. (Photo: VOA Azeri Service)

RFE/RL Journalist Khadija Ismayilova walks out of prison, after her sentence is reduced, May 25, 2016. (Photo: VOA Azeri Service)

Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been released from custody following a decision Wednesday by the country's Supreme Court.

Ismayilova, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter and an award-winning investigative journalist who published findings on the vast assets of the family of President Ilham Aliyev, was sentenced in 2015 to seven years in prison on charges of tax evasion and abuse of power in what many say were politically motivated charges.

The Supreme Court, in its order Wednesday, cut her sentence in half, reducing it to 3½ years, which she will now be allowed to serve at home.

WATCH: Video of Ismayilova discussing her case

John Lansing, CEO and director of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, welcomed her release as a "positive development for the people of Azerbaijan and a step forward for press freedom."

"I call on the Azerbaijan authorities to lift her travel restrictions, and I urge that her release be accompanied by a relief from the harassment, surveillance and intimidation that she suffered prior to her detainment," he added.

"It is a repressive regime that imprisoned her," U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview with VOA. "We are happy that she is out of prison, but we still want the world to understand it was wrong for her to be in custody, and it is wrong to impose any restrictions on her."

"It's an important day for her — let's remember that, the suffering she went through — but also for the Ukrainian people, because I think she symbolizes the courage and determination of Ukraine to be free and democratic," U.S. Representative Sandy Lavin, a Michigan Democrat, told VOA.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also called for her sentence to be dismissed altogether.

“Khadija Ismayilova must be fully acquitted if she is ever to obtain justice for her wrongful imprisonment,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

Rachel Denber, HRW's Europe and Central Asia deputy director, also called on the government to "release the other activists, journalists and other government critics in detention on politically motivated charges and vacate the convictions against them."

WATCH: Senator John McCain on Khadija Ismayilova imprisonment

Earlier this week, U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Ismayilova's arrest was symbolic of the need for reform in Azerbaijan, adding that it would have an effect on Baku's future relations with the United States.

"I support taking action against the government of Azerbaijan if they continue to incarcerate her, but more importantly on their continued human rights abuses," McCain said in an interview with VOA.

"This kind of behavior, incarceration of an innocent person who is exercising a fundamental right of freedom of the press, will not only not go unnoticed, but compels us to act in certain ways."

The U.S. State Department welcomed news of Ismayilova's release Wednesday in a statement by deputy spokesman Mark Toner.

"As Azerbaijan continues to expand freedom of expression and space for civic and political participation, this will only continue to strengthen the country of Azerbaijan and our bilateral relationship," he said.

The statement urged the Azerbaijani government to drop the remaining charges against her.

VOA's Azerbaijan service contributed to this report.