Khadija is free – Free Khadija!

by Michelle Trimborn
The media freedom community gave a sigh of relief when the message was spread: Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison. However, this is not yet a victory as the charges are upheld.

After 538 days in prison, investigative journalist Kahdija Imayilova was freed following a decision by Azerbaijan’s supreme court on Wednesday. The original sentence of seven and a half years in prison for charges including libel and tax evasion, embezzlement and of power, announced in September 2015, was changed to a three and a half year prison term on probation as the charges of abuse of power and misappropriation were dropped.

"The case is appalling"

Even though the world is celebrating this happy news, this does not mean that Khadija now walks as a free woman as she has not been acquitted. In practice this means that she is not allowed to travel abroad without official permission for the next five years, but has to stay in Baku.

Henrik Kaufholz, Chair of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, calls on the Azeri authorities to re-consider: “The whole case is appalling. It is great news that Khadija Ismayilova is free – but only on probation and she can end up in prison again according to the ruling of the High Court of Azerbaijan. We want the prosecutor in Baku to drop all charges against her and give her the right to travel abroad, so that she can continue to meet and work with her colleagues from OCCRP (Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project).”

The process against Khadija Ismayilova has been criticised as politically motivated. The reporter is known for her investigations into both the bad human rights situation in Azerbaijan as well as into corruption.For example she has also investigated the government and the family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. The sudden detention on charges of tax evasion of a journalist who covers state corruption was perceived as an ironic move.

Nani Jansen, a legal representative of Khadija Ismayilova and Legal Director of the Media Legal Defence Initative (MLDI), which ECPMF supports for this case, says:

Khadija is a courageous investigative journalist whose work has been critical in exposing corruption in Azerbaijan. She should never have been jailed for fulfilling this important role. It is of the utmost importance that Khadija and other journalists in the country can continue doing their work in freedom."

UNESCO should discharge Azeri goodwill ambassador Aliyeva

Because of this alleged political motivation, ECPMF has repeatedly urged UNESCO to discharge the President’s wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, from her position as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Her connection to the family and government which supports or at least tacitly accepts the violation of human rights and media freedom contradicts her role as Goodwill Ambassador to advocate for the organisation’s values.

“Irina Bokova, Secretary General of the UNESCO, should ask Azerbaijan’s First Lady to step down as goodwill ambassador. It is compromising the UNESCO that Ms. Aliyeva is the ambassador of an organisation that awards its most prestigious prize for press freedom to Khadija Ismayilova”, Henrik Kaufholz comments.

UNESCO works not only science and culture, but also in media freedom, for example calling out both the annual World Press Freedom Day (3 May) and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (2 November).

Three weeks ago, during the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Helsinki, Finland, the then still imprisoned journalist Ismayilova received the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano award honouring her outstanding and fearless work. ECPMF recognised this behaviour as double standards and therefore urgently demands the UNESCO to re-evaluate the title it gave to Mehriban Aliyeva.

Khadija Ismayilova stressed already whilst still in jail that she will continue her important work and is not scared by the unjustified legal measures taken to silence her. After her release she told the AP news agency:

I will continue my journalist work with renewed energy. I feel younger and more energetic, and I will fight until the end.”

Hapy Birthday Khadija ECPMF and many other press freedom organisations celebrated Khadija´s release and her birthday. (Photo: ECPMF)

In fact she celebrated her fortieth birthday just two days after being released from jail. ECPMF and many other press freedom organisations from all over celebrated this and her release.

ECPMF continues to press all charges against Khadija to be dropped, supports her and her lawyers in the efforts to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights and continues to advocate for the freedom of other journalists who serve unjustified prison sentences in Azerbaijan and elsewhere.