Human Rights Watch says it is honoring imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova with its prestigious Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism.
The award is named after the internationally known American human rights activist who died in 2009. It celebrates the valor of individuals who risk their lives to protect the dignity and rights of others, the rights group said.
In a statement Thursday, HRW noted the prominent investigative journalist has dedicated her life to fighting for human rights in oil-rich Azerbaijan. The country is often criticized for its harsh authoritarian rule, imprisonment of human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and many political activists, HRW said.
“Khadija Ismayilova is unshakably dedicated to seeking the truth and promoting justice, not just in the abstract, but for the many people she has met and written about,” Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch said. “Ismayilova’s integrity and courage are an inspiration.”
Ismayilova served for two years as the Baku bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, Radio Azadliq.
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She was accused of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide, charges that were later withdrawn by her accuser.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, such as 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.”
On September 1, the award-winning journalist was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison after what HRW described as a politically motivated prosecution, flawed trial, and campaign to discredit her. Gogia called on Azerbaijani authorities to “immediately vacate Ismayilova’s conviction and set her free.”
Representatives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees RFE/RL and Voice of America, among other entities, have repeatedly contacted Azerbaijani officials to protest her incarceration and demanded her unconditional release.
Known for investigative reporting
As Baku bureau chief at Radio Azadliq, and then as anchor of a talk show, Ismayilova conducted extensive research and reported on allegations of corruption, malfeasance, and unethical business dealings among government officials and within the ruling family’s highest ranks, HRW said. It noted that beginning in 2011, Ismayilova exposed the government’s allegedly unlawful expropriation of property and forced eviction of homeowners to make way for construction related to the Eurovision Song Festival.
The government of Azerbaijan retaliated with threats, intimidation, and a vicious smear campaign against her in state-run media, according to HRW.
Ismayilova has also been a fierce and outspoken advocate for releasing unjustly imprisoned activists amid Azerbaijan’s ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression and association, HRW said.
During the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have imprisoned many of the country’s most outspoken human rights activists and members of the media, and driven others into exile or hiding, HRW said. They include prominent human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, veteran human rights defender Leyla Yunus, political activist Ilgar Mammadov, and election monitor Anar Mammadli.
Last December, Azerbaijani police raided RFE/RL's Baku bureau, shutting down the office and ordering the journalists there to stop working. Police summoned the reporters for questioning linked to their work. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalistsists Azerbaijan as among the world's ten most censored countries.