Jailed Azerbaijani Journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, to Be Honored by PEN
MOSCOW — A jailed Azerbaijani journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, will receive a prestigious press freedom award next month from the PEN American Center, as the nonprofit literary organization joins a rising wave of international criticism directed at the government of President Ilham Aliyev over human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech.
Ms. Ismayilova, an investigative journalist who repeatedly drew the ire of Mr. Aliyev by reporting on corruption allegations against his family, has been imprisoned since early December.
Initially, she faced allegations that she nearly drove a colleague to commit suicide. But since then she has been convicted of criminal libel in a closed trial and also charged with embezzlement, tax evasion and other crimes.
Among the subjects she reported on were business dealings by the Aliyev family involving construction projects tied to the Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in the capital, Baku, in 2012. She also drew attention to human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
“Khadija Ismayilova is not only a fearless journalist, but also one of the most fierce advocates on behalf of the dozens of writers and dissidents jailed in Azerbaijan for exercising their right to free speech,” Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner” and a member of the PEN American Center, said in a statement. (Ms. Ismayilova translated “The Kite Runner” into Azerbaijani.)
Even from prison, Ms. Ismayilova has continued to write, sending letters describing solitary confinement and other harsh treatment, while repeating her criticism of the Aliyev government.
“She is truly fearless,” Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of the PEN American Center, said in a telephone interview. “That’s what really made her stand out. She literally will not be silenced.”
The mounting criticism over the arrests in recent months of journalists, civil society activists and political opposition figures, as well as a government raid that shut down the Baku office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, comes as Azerbaijan is planning to hold the first European Games, a sporting competition organized by the International Olympic Committee.
In a separate effort organized by the PEN American Center, a group of prominent writers and editors, including many well-known American sportswriters, has written to the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, urging him to condemn the rights abuses in Azerbaijan and to demand Ms. Ismayilova’s release.
“Azerbaijan does not abide by the central human rights principles — among them freedom of the press — that live in the spirit of the Olympic Charter,”the writers and editors wrote to Mr. Bach, adding, “The environment in Azerbaijan has become increasingly repressive.”
Signers of the letter include the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick; the veteran sports columnists Dave Anderson and Robert Lipsyte; the filmmaker and writer Ken Burns; the writers David Maraniss and Michael Lewis; and the NBC Olympics anchor Bob Costas.
This week, an international group of policy analysts, former government officials, civil society advocates and academics issued a letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to take action against Azerbaijan, including banning travel to the United States by senior Azerbaijani officials responsible for rights abuses and freezing their assets.
The group has also urged political leaders to boycott the European Games.
At the PEN American Center’s gala in New York City next month, Ms. Ismayilova will receive the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, which is given annually to writers who are imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their work. Of 39 honorees who were in jail at the time they received the award, 34 were later freed, according to PEN.
Past recipients have included the Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, honored in 2012 and, in 2009, the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year. In 2000, PEN honored poets imprisoned in Kosovo and China.