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Ismayilova Freed From Prison But Intent On Justice

RFE/RL Journalist Khadija Ismayilova, moments after her release from prison. Baku, Azerbaijan, May 25, 2016
RFE/RL Journalist Khadija Ismayilova, moments after her release from prison. Baku, Azerbaijan, May 25, 2016

WASHINGTON -- Elated but defiant, RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova walked out of prison in Baku today after Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court suspended her jail sentence, vowing to take the Azerbaijani government to court to hold it accountable for concocting a case against her on political grounds.

“My arrest was an injustice,” declared Ismayilova, whose reporting linking Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family members to corruption has been cited by rights groups as the reason for her imprisonment. She told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service moments after her release, “I will continue my journalism, and nothing will keep me from working as a journalist. Even in a country like Azerbaijan, I will continue to do my job.”

The Baku court issued its verdict on May 25 in response to the journalist's appeal of her September 2015 conviction. The court acquitted her on the charges of misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but upheld her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion -- charges that RFE/RL has rejected as baseless. Her sentence was reduced from 7 1/2 years in custody to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years, with a five-year ban on traveling outside of the country without permission. A written judgement explaining the terms of Ismayilova’s release is expected shortly.

RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic welcomed the news, saying, "This is a great day for Khadija, and for all journalists and for free speech everywhere."

"We are overjoyed for Khadija and her family and can't wait for her to get back to work," he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) recorded video statements in support of Ismayilova the day before her release. Addressing a message to her directly, Sen. McCain told Ismayilova, “People around the world, and in the United States, are with you. And we will do everything we can to see that not only you are free, but your colleagues and others are able to exercise... freedom of the press.” Rep. Schiff thanked her for the "courage and integrity that you have displayed.”

In written statements issued after Ismayilova’s release, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “heartened” to hear of her release and welcomed "Khadija’s strong statement that she will continue to do the work that she loves," while noting "that it was wrong for her to be in prison.” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Ismayilova’s release “removes an obstacle to better relations between the United States and Azerbaijan,” while calling on Azerbaijani authorities “to allow [Ismayilova] to continue her work and to permit RFE/RL to reopen [its bureau in Baku]."

BBG Chairman Jeff Shell applauded the revision of what he called an “unconscionable and unacceptable sentence in retaliation for [Ismayilova’s] corruption reporting,” while urging Azerbaijani authorities “to clear her name of all wrong-doing” and remove the conditions restricting her freedom.

Shell also called on Azerbaijan to reopen RFE/RL’s Baku bureau, which was forcibly closed by state agents following Ismayilova’s arrest in December 2014.

Azerbaijan is ranked 189th out of 199 countries and territories surveyed in Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Press survey, and 163rd out of 180 countries and territories ranked in Reporters Without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House says there are still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.