An imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist has been given an annual award that recognizes an imprisoned writer who exercised the right to free expression.
The PEN American Center’s 2015 award has been given to Khadija Ismayilova, who investigated the Azerbaijan president's family finances.
Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service (Radio Azadliq). She reported extensively on the financial activities of members of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family, exposing high-levels of corruption. RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
“Khadija Ismayilova knows no fear," said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel in announcing the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. "Again and again she has unearthed and exposed stories that have cast a harsh light on widespread corruption and self-dealing at the highest levels of the Azeri government.”
“We are grateful that the PEN American Center added their voice to the increasingly loud chorus decrying the unjust imprisonment of Khadija Ismayilova,” said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. “The board wishes nothing more than that this spirited and determined journalist could receive the award in person. We hope the increasing global attention to the injustice of Khadija’s case will lead to her release.”
BBG and RFE/RL representatives have repeatedly contacted Azerbaijani officials to protest her incarceration.
An open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on April 13 signed by more than 20 analysts, academics, NGO leaders and former diplomats expressed alarm at the country’s “deteriorating human rights situation” and called on the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan if, among other measures, political prisoners are not released.
In addition, “Press Uncuffed,” a crowd-sourced campaign to free imprisoned journalists launched by students at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists, has called for Ismayilova's release.
Ismayilova, who remains in pre-trial detention in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, will be honored May 5, five months after she was imprisoned.
She was arrested and jailed December 5 on charges of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide — charges that have since been withdrawn by her accuser.
In February, she was convicted of libel in a closed-door proceeding; the following month, she was charged with tax evasion, illegal business activity and abuse of power. Ismayilova has rejected all charges against her as politically motivated and false, and RFE/RL has characterized them as having “no basis in reality.”
Since 2012, Ismayilova has been targeted by government media outlets in Azerbaijan and threatened with physical harm and arrest. In February 2014, official media accused her of spying for the United States after she met with U.S. Senate staffers in Baku.
RFE/RL’s Baku bureau was raided and closed by Azerbaijani agents on December 26, 2014.
Ismayilova has continued to write even while in prison, sending letters describing her solitary confinement.
Azerbaijan is among the world’s most repressive media environments, and Ismayilova’s detention has been widely condemned as part of a systematic, state-led campaign to intimidate and silence the country’s independent activists and journalists.
In June, Baku will host the first European Games, an Olympic-organized international sporting event. In an open letter, a group of prominent writers and editors, including many American sportswriters, has urged International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach to demand Ismayilova’s release and condemn human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.