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Press Freedom Matters: Global pressure helps secure release of Khadija Ismayilova

Campaigners around the world rejoiced as Azerbaijan’s cause célèbre investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison.

Khadija Ismayilova speaks to journalists right after being released from prison in Baku, Azerbaijan, 25 May 2016
Khadija Ismayilova speaks to journalists right after being released from prison in Baku, Azerbaijan, 25 May 2016

AP Photo/Aziz Karimov

After 537 days of unjust imprisonment, Khadija Ismayilova is finally free.

On 25 May 2016, the Supreme Court of Baku ordered Ismayilova's conditional release and amended her imprisonment to a 3.5 year suspended sentence, according to Reuters.

The journalist had been originally sentenced to 7.5 years in jail over trumped-up charges, including tax evasion and “embezzlement”. Along with today's suspended sentence, the court also subjected her to a travel ban and other restrictions.

“We are beyond relieved that Khadija Ismayilova has finally been released, but emphasise that she should never have spent a single day in jail,” said Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (ECCA) International Media Support Team Leader Gulnara Akhundova in a statement by the Sport for Rights coalition. “We call for all restrictions on her to be immediately dropped and for her conviction to be overturned.”

Ismayilova is world-renowned for her ruthless investigative work uncovering corruption within the Azerbaijani ruling elite. Even prior to her imprisonment, Ismayilova was threatened and harassed for her work. In 2012, IFEX profiled her in its International Day to End Impunity Campaign, where her dedication to exposing injustice – often in the face of adversity – was highlighted.

Following Ismayilova's imprisonment in December 2014, reporters from around the world continued her investigation into allegations of corruption – many of which were later confirmed by the leak of the Panama Papers. Ismayilova's tenacious commitment to free expression has earned her numerous awards, among them the 2016 UNESCO Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize.

Social media was alight today as press freedom defenders learned of her release, with many of them posting messages of support, photos and videos of the journalist.

The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) – an IFEX member organisation based in Azerbaijan – celebrated Ismayilova's release on Twitter. IRFS has advocated extensively for the release of Ismayilova, as well as many other human rights defenders and journalists in Azerbaijan.

Other IFEX members were also thrilled to hear of Ismayilova's release. However, this joy was tempered by the continued crackdown on journalists and government critics Azerbaijan.

"We are pleased for Khadija and her family and glad they can finally be reunited," said Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House. "Many other political prisoners remain behind bars, including journalist Seymur Hazi, blogger Ilkin Rustamzada, political activist Ilgar Mammadov, all of whom should be immediately freed, if the government's commitment to human rights is genuine."

Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that “today's ruling ordering Khadija Ismayilova freed is cause for celebration, but does not erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges.”

This sentiment was echoed by the International Press Institute's Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis. “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,” said Ellis.

Other IFEX members, including Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, have also made statements celebrating Ismayilova's release.

Prior to the news of her release, the Sport for Rights Coalition organised a global action to mark her 40th birthday on 27 May 2016, in 40 cities around the world. Gatherings will still go forward, and participants will celebrate Ismayilova's release, calling for her full acquittal and the release of Azerbaijan's dozens of remaining political prisoners.

Sport for Rights coordinator Rebecca Vincent notes: “On the occasion of her release, we echo Khadija's call that we should not focus only on her case, but call for the releases of all political prisoners and concrete steps to address the rampant corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan that Khadija has sacrificed so much to expose.”

Caro Rolando is the IFEX Section Editor for Africa, Europe and Central Asia.

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