Prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison on May 25, in a move welcomed by international rights groups. Azerbaijan' Supreme Court ordered the award-winning journalist to be released on probation. Ismayilova was serving a 7.5-year jail term for embezzlement, libel, illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power, charges that most observers believed to be trumped up.
A contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and BBC Azerbaijan, Ismayilova is best known for her investigations of high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, which revealed the extent of the wealth of the family of President Ilham Aliyev. In past interviews, she has said that she did not target the first family on purpose, but that their names kept popping up in her investigations. Her findings were later corroborated by the Panama Papers document leak.
Ismayilova was arrested in December 2014, amidst a crackdown on civil society and human rights in which many government critics were sentenced to jail terms, and several foreign non-government institutions (NGOs), including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), were ousted from the country. A protracted human rights campaign led by the UK-based Sport for Rights organisation has advocated on behalf of Ismayilova, and high-profile human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has taken her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
On May 27, Ismayilova's 40th birthday, Sport for Rights had organised 40 rallies worldwide asking for her release. The organisation has confirmed that it would still hold the rallies to advocate for the release of other political prisoners.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned 148 prisoners, including 14 that were considered "prisoners of conscience" in March, ahead of an important national holiday, the Persian New Year Novruz. In April, the administration allowed two other prominent political prisoners - spouses Leyla and Arif Yunus - to travel abroad. There has been mounting international pressure for the country to release its political prisoners from foreign NGOs and governments. The US House of Representatives was mulling a bill to exact sanctions on high-ranking Azerbaijani officials over human rights violations.
Upon her release, Ismayilova said that she would continue her work with "new forces", and that she would go ahead with the ECHR case in order to make the government accountable for detaining her for 1.5 years, and to have the remainder of the accusations lifted. On May 25, the court wrote off two of the four charges against her, but she remains under conditional release and would serve a sentence of 3.5 years if she were arrested again.
"I will hold the Azerbaijani government responsible for keeping me in prison for 1.5 years, away from my job, family and students," she told journalists on May 25. "My arrest was solely for political reasons, because President Aliyev and his clique wanted to remove all criticism against them," she added.
First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva reportedly filed a motion to parliament in May to have Ismayilova released. Azerbaijan is known as one of the most repressive countries in Europe, and is deemed as "Not Free" by the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House (FH). With an aggregate score of 20 in FH's "Freedom in the World" ranking, Azerbaijan is ranked lower than Russia, Iraq and Turkey, but higher than China.
Some 90 political prisoners remain behind bars in the country. Just as Ismayilova was being released, youth activist Amid Seleymanov from the opposition Nida Youth Movement and photographer Elnur Mukhtarov were detained for unspecified reasons for 10 days. Another Nida activist was arrested together with Seleymanov. This is the second arrest of Nida party members in the last two weeks.
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