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On World Press Freedom Day PEN Calls on Azerbaijan to free Khadija Ismayilova

Tuesday 3 May 2016 - 11:34am

khadija13 May 2016 - Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and radio host for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, who has dedicated her career to exposing high level corruption in Azerbaijan and criticising the Azerbaijani government’s crackdown on opposition voices. Because of her work, she has been the target of a relentless campaign of intimidation and judicial harassment in recent years.

On 5 December 2014, Ismayilova was arrested on suspicion of inciting another journalist’s attempted suicide although this charge was later dropped. Nevertheless, Ismayilova was convicted on 1 September 2015 of fresh charges of embezzlement and tax evasion for which she was sentenced to seven years and a half in prison.

The Panama Papers confirm much of the information previously revealed by Ismayilova in the course of her work- that the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is using offshore companies to hide its wealth and its ownership in Azerbaijan's most lucrative businesses, namely in offshore companies registered in Panama.

In January PEN International, along with a number of other rights organisations, submitted a third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights, highlighting the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and the  severe impairment of the right to receive and  impart information as guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as a result of on-going and systematic repressive practices towards civil society, including journalists, by the Azerbaijani authorities.

In April, PEN International and Privacy International led 14 free expression and media freedom organisations in submitting an intervention in Ismayilova’s case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The intervention elaborates the freedom of expression and privacy implications of her case.

PEN believes Ismayilova’s imprisonment is a politically-motivated response to her work exposing corruption at the highest levels of Azerbaijani society and has been calling for her immediate and unconditional release since her arrest.

Since she has been in prison, Khadija Ismayilova has turned her energies to translating novels into Azerbaijani.  In early 2016, her translation of Children of the Jacaranda Tree by the American writer of Iranian origin Sahar Delijani, was published.  In the preface, Deljani wrote of her admiration for this translation, stating "First of all, the book was translated by an arrested fighter for freedom. Secondly, Khadija translated the book to my native language." Deljani’s early years in Iran were spent with her grandmother who only spoke Azerbaijani as her parents were in prison.

Take Action:

Please send appeals:

  • Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Khadija Ismayilova and all others held in Azerbaijan solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression ;
  • Calling on Azerbaijan to comply with its obligations under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Azerbaijan is a state party) to protect the right to freedom of expression and cease its campaign of intimidation directed at opposition or critical voices.

Appeals to:

President Ilham Aliyev
Istiglaliyyat Street 19
1066 Baku
Republic of Azerbaijan
Fax +994124923543
Salutation: Your Excellency
Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov
Office of the Prosecutor General
7 Rafibeyli Street
Baku AZ1001, Azerbaijan
Salutation: Dear Prosecutor General

Please copy your letters to the Azerbaijani embassy in your country.  The address may be found here.

In solidarity:

Write to Khadija Ismayilova in prison. Her friends and family say that messages of support provide great comfort and inspiration:

Prison Address:

Xədicə İsmayılova
Bakı İstintaq təcridxanası
Sabunçu rayonu,
Zabrat-2 qəsəbəsi AZ-1104,

PEN members are encouraged to:

  • Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting Khadija Ismayilova’s case;
  • Organise public events, stage readings, press conferences or demonstrations;
  • Share information about Ismayilova and your campaigning activities for her via social media.

Social Media: Please use the hashtag #WPFD2016

Suggested tweets:

  • #Azerbaijan Release journalist Khadija Ismayilova, sentenced to 7½ years for her investigations  @pen_int;
  • On #WPFD2016 take action for writers resisting repression of their right to #FOE (insert link).

For further details please contact Sahar Halaimzai at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 e-mail:


Khadija Ismayilova, 39, is a member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, to which she contributes with her investigations. Between 2008 and 2010 she served as the head of the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, and from 2010 she published a series of articles in which she accused Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his family of corruption. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty named two of these reports as their best investigative articles in 2010 and 2011. She shed light on the business activities of the presidential family and their closest relatives, highlighting surprising facts such as a real estate in the United Arab Emirates worth US$ 44 million owned by President Aliyev’s 11-year-old son; and a public bank and a holding owned by the President’s daughter that had won several tenders. She also discovered that the AIMROC consortium in charge of extracting gold and silver worth 2.5 billion USD from the Chovdar mine is owned by three Panamanian companies, of which the wife and daughters of the President are senior managers. According to a Freedom House report, Azerbaijani law prohibits government officials, including the president, from owning businesses, but there are no such restrictions on business dealings by family members of officials.

Ismayilova soon started to pay the consequences of her investigations. On 7 March 2012, Ismayilova received what appeared to be snapshots of footage from a camera hidden in her bedroom. Attached was a letter containing threats of “public humiliation”, if Ismayilova did not “behave”.  It is believed the threats came after her investigation into Aliyev’s family’s alleged interests in lucrative construction projects in Baku ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest. When she refused, an explicit video of her, apparently filmed covertly in her apartment, was posted online. In light of these events, in February 2014, Ismayilova posted a list of requests to her supporters in case of her arrest. In October 2014, on returning home from a meeting with Council of Europe officials in Strasbourg, she was detained for several hours at Baku airport.

The arrest came on 5 December 2014, when Ismayilova was accused of inciting her former colleague Tural Mustafayev to suicide. She was held in pre-trial detention until her trial took place in September 2015. According to reports, in December 2014 Mustafayev withdrew his original complaint which he had filed while ‘going through psychologically difficult times’. Nevertheless, Ismayilova was convicted on 1 September 2015 of fresh charges of embezzlement and tax evasion for which she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. The sentence was upheld on appeal in November 2015.

Ismayilova’s investigations over the past five years have attracted international attention. She has received several awards for her work, including the 2015 PEN America Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Today, on World Press Freedom Day, she will be awarded the 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.


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