PEN American Center will be honoring jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova with the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. This prestigious award is a recognition of her tireless work to combat corruption and defend freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. As the New York Times notes, Ms. Ismayilova “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.” For this reason, she is a most deserving recipient. But, the timing of the award could not be more critical as it will bring much needed attention to the Azerbaijani government’s outrageous and inhumane treatment of her, and many others it has imprisoned on spurious criminal charges.
The award places Ms. Ismayilova in the company of many courageous writers, including Freedom Now clients Eskinder Nega and Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Nega, an Ethiopian journalist currently serving 18 years in prison for criticizing the government’s anti-terrorism laws, received the award in 2012. Dr. Liu, a Chinese scholar and renowned dissident serving an 11 year sentence for his involvement in the pro-democracy Charter ‘08 manifesto, received the award in 2009. One year later, Dr. Liu received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
Ms. Ismayilova is an award-winning investigative reporter who began her career in journalism in 1997. She served as the head of the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) between 2008 and 2010 and later as a contributor and radio host. Between 2010 and 2012, she gained international attention for her reporting on the corrupt practices and business dealings of President Ilham Aliyev and his family.
Ms. Ismayilova’s fearlessness has repeatedly made her a target of the Azerbaijani government. In the past three years, she has been the target of a blackmail scheme, arrested for attending a peaceful protest, detained after addressing the Council of Europe, and banned from international travel.
On December 4, 2014, the Azerbaijani government issued a 60-page document that accused employees of RFE/RL of treason and specifically singled out Ms. Ismayilova as the “best example.” The next day Ms. Ismayilova was arrested and bizarrely accused of inciting the attempted suicide of a friend and former colleague. New charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power were brought against her on February 13, 2014, after she had already been held for more than two months in pre-trial detention. If convicted she faces 12 years in prison.
Ms. Ismayilova is not the only journalist the Azerbaijani government has sought to silence. At least 26 journalists remain behind bars on similar charges. Hilal Mammadov and Rauf Mirkadirov are two examples of this disturbing trend. Mr. Mammadov, chief editor of Azerbaijan’s only Talysh-language newspaper, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2012 on fabricated charges of drug possession, treason, and inciting hatred. Days before his arrest, he criticized the government and highlighted the marginalization of the Talysh people in an interview with a Russian film crew. Mr. Mirkadirov, a prominent independent journalist and columnist with Zerkalo newspaper, was arrested in Baku airport in April 2014, after being deported from Turkey. Mr. Mirkadirov, who had been living in Turkey, was charged with espionage on behalf of Armenia, following a trip he made to Armenia to meet with civil society activists.
Emin Huseynov, the chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, is facing many of the same charges, but has been hiding in the Swiss embassy in Baku since August 2014, stuck in legal purgatory.
The crackdown extends far beyond journalists to include any independent voice who dares to speak out in protest. The jails are filled with lawyers such as Intigam Aliyev, civil society leaders such as Leyla and Arif Yunus, and political opposition leaders such as Ilgar Mammadov. This week human rights activist Rasul Jafarov was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. Mr. Jafarov has consistently exposed Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses and had placed an emphasis in recent years on monitoring political trials and arbitrary detention. This harsh sentence against Rasul Jafarov portends a grime outcome on other pending cases, such as Ms. Ismayilova’s and also Mr. Aliyev, whose sentencing is expected soon.
In June, Baku will host the first European Games, an event which has already sparked controversy. It is yet another attempt by the Government of Azerbaijan to be accepted as a modern European country, despite the fact that it has more political prisoners than Belarus – often considered Europe’s last dictatorship. Rather than embracing democratic principles and respecting human rights, the government chooses to host sporting events with ostentatious zeal. If it wishes to be taken seriously in the international community to which it aspires – namely, the Council of Europe – it would do better by releasing Khadija Ismayilova and her peers and cease its harassment of civil society.