Jailed Azeri Journalist Khadija Ismayilova Receives PEN Press Freedom Award

Investigative Journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has been jailed in Azerbaijan since last December, was honored with the prestigious PEN Freedom to Write Award at a gala in New York.


khadijaKhadija IsmayilovaIsmayilova's award was accepted on her behalf by Emin Milli, who has also previously been jailed in Azerbaijan.


According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the crowd burst into chants of "Khadija, Khadija”. Milli addressed the audience of 800, urging them to "spread the word about her courage and struggle for freedom all over the world".


Also shown at the event was a video featuring Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. Hosseini called Ismayilova’s imprisonment a "call to action”, adding: "She is a critical voice. She brings awareness."


The PEN American Center announced Ismayilova as the recipient of the award last month.


Executive director Suzanne Nossel said: "Again and again she has unearthed and exposed stories that have cast a harsh light on widespread corruption and self-dealing at the highest levels of the Azeri government."


Ismayilova was also recently honored with the Swedish National Press Club's 2015 Freedom of Speech Award.


Khadija's Investigations


Ismayilova’s investigations dealt with corruption in the Azerbaijani government and included revelations about the business dealings of President Aliyev’s family.


She was subjected to an escalating series of harassments which culminated in her arrest last December. The harassment included a blackmail campaign in which a video depicting her personal life, taken from a hidden camera inside her apartment, was broadcast online. She posted a riposte to her blackmailers on her Facebook page, and continued her work.  


She was detained after being charged with inciting a colleague to attempt suicide, an accusation which the complainant has since withdrawn. She is now faced with an array of new charges, including running an illegal business, tax evasion, embezzlement, and abuse of power. She has dismissed them as "ridiculous", and international human rights watchdogs have labeled them as "politically motivated".


In an earlier court appearance, which was closed to the public, she was outspoken in her criticism of President Aliyev and the government of Azerbaijan, calling her charges "insulting" and denouncing the political establishment as "criminal". It was also reported that in a recent court appearance, after receiving a standing ovation, she was confined to a glass sound-proof box


Other 2015 PEN Award Recipients


The longstanding and prestigious PEN awards this year attracted controversy when it was announced that satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo would receive the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. According to The Guardian, the decision led six prominent writers, slated as "table heads", to withdraw from the event and publish a letter criticizing the PEN awards for "valorizing selectively offensive material". The letter has since been signed by more than 200 of PEN's 4,000 members.


That campaign, however, drew criticism of its own. Former PEN president Salman Rushdie told the New York Times, "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name."


The awards come within a week of an announcement by Freedom House that 2014 marked a ten-year low in media freedom around the world. Its report named Azerbaijan as a “major backslider” in press freedom, citing Ismayilova’s arrest and the closing of RFE/RL’s branch in Baku after authorities raided its office.