NEW YORK—PEN American Center and the Sport for Rights Campaign have received the first letter in months from Khadija Ismayilova, the investigative journalist jailed since December for exposing official corruption at the highest levels of government in Azerbaijan.

“Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse,” the letter reads. “Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced. Keep fighting for right, and for good. Be loud, and be public. The people of Azerbaijan need to know that their rights are supported. And please, don’t call just for my freedom; call for the release of all political prisoners. Stand up for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. Stand up for human rights.”

The 371-word message was smuggled out in pieces from Kurdakhani prison in Baku, where Ismayilova has been held in solitary confinement since her earlier letters sparked international outcry over Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses ahead of the first annual Olympic-organized European Games, set to open today in Baku.

“I have been punished for speaking out from jail, placed into solitary confinement, and prevented from seeing my family and lawyers,” Ismayilova says in her letter. “My notes have been seized from my cell. As I have said before, if this is the price to pay, it is worth it.”

Khadija Ismayilova gained international acclaim for her hard-hitting investigative reporting during another continent-wide event, the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, revealing the unethical business dealings of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, his family, and other government officials. Her writings prompted an escalating pattern of legal harassment, short detentions, and personal smear campaigns until she was formally arrested in December 2014 on spurious charges of “inciting a colleague to suicide.” She was later slapped with four additional charges—embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of power, and running an illegal business—and faces a prison sentence of up to twelve years if convicted.

In May, she was awarded the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

“Khadija Ismayilova is unstoppable. Even in solitary confinement she is managing to get her message out, timing her letter perfectly to capture the world’s attention on the eve of the European Games,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. “Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is trying to use those games to burnish his country’s reputation but, thanks to Khadija and other fearless activists, participating governments, sports champions, and journalists are now as focused on Azerbaijan’s abuses as they are on its athletes. We hope everyone paying attention to these games sees them for what they are and doesn’t let Aliyev get away with the whitewash he seeks.”

The environment in Azerbaijan has grown increasingly repressive for journalists and human rights activists in recent years. 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.

“Khadija has once again shown enormous courage in speaking out from behind bars to remind us of the real situation in Azerbaijan,” said Rebecca Vincent, Coordinator of the Sport for Rights Campaign. “On the opening of the European Games, we echo Khadija’s call to the international community to take action to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for its human rights obligations – starting with the immediate and unconditional release of Khadija and the other jailed journalists and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”

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Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is a community of 4,000 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. Its distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag. To learn more, visit www.pen.org

The Sport for Rights Campaign was launched to draw attention to the repression, corruption, and censorship that lies behind Baku’s glitz and glamour ahead of the European Games. Led by various human rights NGOs in honor of jailed Azerbaijani activist Rasul Jafarov, ‘Sport for Rights’ aims to encourage national Olympic committees, athletes, the press, and the public to speak up for our imprisoned colleagues and for all Azerbaijanis facing violations of their basic rights and freedoms. sportforrights.org

 

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, PEN American Center: sedkins@pen.org, +1 (646) 779.4830
Rebecca Vincent, Sports for Rights Campaign: rebecca.jane.vincent@googlemail.com, +44 (0) 7583 137751