The International Press Institute (IPI) today welcomed news that Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been ordered freed after spending nearly 18 months behind bars on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement that supporters say were politically motivated.
Ismayilova was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in September, but Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court today reduced that to a three-and-a-half-year suspended term. News reports indicated that she was expected to be released from detention today.
“While we are disappointed that Ms. Ismayilova was only conditionally released and not fully acquitted of all charges, we are pleased to know that she will be leaving prison and we urge authorities to expedite her release,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “We also call on Azerbaijan’s government to free all other journalists, activists and others currently imprisoned in connection with the exercise of the right to free expression, and to end an ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices that has severely chilled independent journalism in the country.”
IPI and free expression defenders around the globe had decried the case against Ismayilova, who reportedly earned the ire of the oil-rich Caspian nation’s president, Ilham Aliyev, with her reports on government corruption scandals, some of which implicated members of the president’s family.
UNESCO honoured the award-winning journalist in absentia earlier this month with its UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which honours those who make an outstanding contribution to defending or promoting press freedom, especially in the face of danger.
Ismayilova’s case was viewed as a headache for Azerbaijan’s government, which had been under significant pressure from media freedom watchdogs and Western governments over the case. That pressure was expected to mount, as Ismayilova and high-profile counsel Amal Clooney were expected to proceed to the European Court of Human Rights if the appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected.
Today’s decision comes just two days before Ismayilova is set to turn 40. Activists had planned to hold demonstrations of support in at least 40 cities around the world to mark the date. The decision also comes as Azerbaijan is about to celebrate its annual Republic Day on Saturday with a mass amnesty for some 3,500 prisoners convicted of minor crimes.
Aliyev in March pardoned a group of 148 individuals who were widely considered to be political prisoners. That group included Rauf Mirgadirov, who was sentenced to six years in prison last year on a spurious treason charge after having been deported from Turkey.
Nevertheless, observers continue to describe a stifling overall atmosphere of pressure and harassment targeting independent and opposition voices in the country.