On September 1, 2015, Khadija Ismayilova was convicted on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power in a closed-door trial and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. On November 25, an Azerbaijani appellate court upheld the guilty verdict against Ismayilova, confirming her sentence. Ismayilova was acquitted on a previous charge of inciting a colleague to suicide after the accuser recanted his allegation. On May 25, 2016, Ismayilova was released on probation and granted a suspended sentence in a Supreme Court decision rendered in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
Khadija Ismayilova is the winner of the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Khadija Ismayilova, is an award-winning freelance reporter who has worked for various Azeri–, Russian–, and English–language news outlets. She is an outspoken advocate for press freedom and human rights in Azerbaijan and has repeatedly called for the release of dozens of detained and imprisoned Azeri journalists. Her most high-profile journalism work has been with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), where she worked from 2008 to 2010 as bureau chief and later as a staff reporter. Despite the highly oppressive and government-controlled media environment in Azerbaijan, Ismayilova published several investigative pieces in international outlets exposing official corruption—including reports on alleged embezzlement, secret mining interests, and illegal business ownership by President Ilham Aliyev and his family.
Ismayilova’s reporting on official corruption has made her the constant target of judicial harassment, threats, and personal smear campaigns. In 2011, a camera secretly installed in her home filmed Ismayilova and her boyfriend during an intimate moment—the footage was later used in an attempt to blackmail her into stopping her corruption investigations. She refused, and the video was released on the Internet. Despite Ismayilova’s reporting the threat to police prior to the release of the video, the Azerbaijan’s Attorney General’s Office only began its investigation when the footage was made public. Azeri police have yet to identify and prosecute those responsible.
In 2013, Ismayilova was detained after she participated in an unsanctioned protest against police abuse. Arguing that she broke no law, she refused to pay the 500 manat fine leveled against her and was instead sentenced to 220 hours of community service sweeping the streets. Ismayilova dubbed her community service “Sweeping for Democracy,” and a number of her social media followers pledged to join her, at which point the government attempted to change her community service to a less-public venue, cleaning at a rehabilitation facility. When Ismayilova refused, the government threatened her with three months in prison.
On December 5, 2014, Ismayilova was arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for two months in connection with charges that she incited a former colleague to commit suicide after she allegedly pressed RFE/RL’s editorial staff not to rehire him—allegations her editors deny. Her detention was extended twice. On February 13, 2015, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office also charged Ismayilova with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Khadija was convicted in a closed-door trial on February 24 on separate charges of libel and criminal defamation after she posted on Facebook an apparent contract from the Ministry of National Security hiring an informer to infiltrate the political opposition.
The first hearing for her trial was on July 24th. On August 21st, the prosecution requested a nine-year prison sentence. On September 1, 2015, Khadija Ismayilova was convicted on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power in a closed-door trial and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. She was acquitted on a previous charge of inciting a colleague to suicide.
To mark the one-year anniversary of Ismayilova’s arrest, nearly 70 journalists, researchers, and supporting organizers convened in Turkey to recommit to finishing the anti-corruption work and writings that Ismayilova started. The stories can be found here.
On May 25, 2016, Ismayilova was released on probation and granted a suspended sentence in a Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court dropped the charges of embezzlement and abuse of power and changed the sentence to a 3.5-year suspended term, upholding charges of tax evasion and illegal business activity. She must now live in Baku while on probation, and is subject to a five year travel ban, but she continues to face government harassment. Most recently, in February 2017, her internet and phone services were temporarily shut off just as she was scheduled to speak via conference call at a European Parliament panel discussion on human rights violations in Azerbaijan. Ismayilova is seeking a full acquittal.
Writings by Khadija Ismayilova
“A Letter from Azerbaijani Prison”
“If I Get Arrested”
“Baku’s Deep Pockets for Art Abroad Contrasts With Restrictions Contrats at Home”
“Azerbaijani President’s Family Benefits from Eurovision Hall Construction”
Letter from an Azerbaijani Jail: Khadija Ismayilova Speaks Out