2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award
“If we can continue to reject the thinking that is imposed on us and believe that human dignity is not for sale, then we are the winners, and they, our jailers both inside and outside prison, are the losers.”
Khadija Ismayilova, 38, is an Azerbaijani journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S.-funded news agency banned in the country. Since 2010, she has gained international acclaim for her hard-hitting investigative reporting on official corruption. After a years-long government campaign against her, Khadija was arrested on December 5, 2014, on spurious charges of inciting a former colleague to suicide—a charge she vehemently rejects. She remains in pre-trial detention, which has been twice extended through May 24.
Khadija’s career started as a translator for a local newspaper, but took a turn after filling in one day for an absent journalist. She has since reported for Azeri-, Russian-, and English-language newspapers, among them Zerkalo, the Caspian Business News, and Voice of America. From 2008 to 2010, she served as Baku bureau chief for RFE/RL’s Azeri service, Radio Azadliq, and since stepping down has hosted a regular popular political radio show, “After Work.” She continues to work as a translator, and in 2011 brought Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner to Azeri audiences.
The environment in Azerbaijan has become increasingly repressive for journalists. The media is strictly controlled by the government, leaving few independent sources of news and information. In addition to hundreds of political prisoners, at least 26 writers are currently detained, on trial, or jailed in Azerbaijan, and others are subject to harassment, threats, and violence. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan is among the 10 worst jailers of journalists in the world, with the second-highest number of jailed journalists per capita.
In a series of articles from 2010–2012, Khadija investigated the unethical business dealings of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family. Her reports exposed millions of dollars of business holdings in the names of Aliyev’s children, as well as other government officials who are prohibited by Azerbaijani law from business ownership. In later writing and public appearances, Khadija exposed government wrongdoings of a more personal nature, emerging as one of the strongest advocates for jailed colleagues and human rights activists persecuted by the regime. Published by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and other outlets for whom she worked, her writings prompted an escalating pattern of legal harassment, short detentions, and personal smear campaigns. In 2011, an intruder installed a secret camera in her home, then attempted to blackmail Khadija with intimate scenes it captured on video. The video was made public when she refused to cooperate with the perpetrator’s demands that she “behave.”
Rights advocates have pointed to Ismayilova’s recent detention as a government attempt to avoid humiliation on the eve of the first ever European Games, an Olympic-organized event to be held in Baku in June. Since her arrest in December, Khadija has been slapped with four additional charges—embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of power, and running an illegal business—and informed that all five charges have been combined and will be tried by the General Prosecutor for Serious Crimes. She faces a prison sentence of up to twelve years if convicted. In a separate closed-door trial on February 23, she was found guilty in a criminal libel suit.
Khadija is currently held in Kurdakhani prison near Baku and has intermittent access to her lawyers; she was allowed a first visit from family members in late March. Her mother, Elmira, has campaigned on her daughter’s behalf since the arrest and says the two speak by phone weekly. Khadija has released several statements from prison defending her innocence and extolling her hope for the future. “Yes, there is a price to pay, but it is worth it!” she writes. “We need to build a new reality where truth will be a norm of life and telling the truth will not require courage.”
“I think Khadija’s story is a story that deserves to be told in a way that can reach tens of millions and hundreds of millions of people around the world.” -Emin Milli exiled Azeri journalist and friend of Khadija (Read the full text of Emin Milli’s tribute to Khadija at the 2015 PEN Gala here.)
• “A Letter from Azerbaijani Prison”
• “If I Get Arrested”
• “Baku’s Deep Pockets for Art Abroad Contrasts With Restrictions at Home”
• “Azerbaijani President’s Family Benefits from Eurovision Hall Construction”
• Letter from an Azerbaijani Jail: Khadija Ismayilova Speaks Out
Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan
• Azerbaijan is ranked 162 out of 180 countries for Press Freedom in 2015 by Reporters Without Borders.
• According to US Embassy-Baku, in 2013 there were 61 incidents involving verbal or physical assaults against journalists.
• In Azerbaijan, libel and defamation are still criminal offenses and can result in heavy fines. The charge is frequently used against those the government wants to silence, as are bogus charges of hooliganism, possession of drugs, failure to cooperate with police, tax evasion, extortion, violating public order, and supporting terrorism.
Use our ACTION TOOLS to send a letter to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev demanding Khadija’s immediate and unconditional release.
Join the Committe to Protect Journalists’ #PressUncuffed campaign to raise awareness of Khadija and other imprisoned journalists around the world.
2015 PEN Gala
• The Ceremony
• Tom Stoppard, 2015 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award
• Charlie Hebdo, 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award
• Markus Dohle, 2015 PEN Publisher Honoree
See also: Cartooning for Free Expression: Free Khadija, Khaled Hosseini Joins Call to Free Khadija