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Imprisoned Azerbaijani Journalist Khadija Ismayilova Wins PEN Award

RFE/RL Journalist Khadija Ismayilova in Baku, 18 February 2014

Jailed Azerbaijani investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova has been awarded PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, given annually to "an imprisoned writer persecuted for exercising her right to free expression."

RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic welcomed the award, calling it "a powerful acknowledgement of the value of Khadija's work and the wrongfulness of her imprisonment," and a "significant addition to efforts to gain her release."

On April 15, "The New York Times" wrote that, with its award to Ismayilova, PEN was "joining a rising wave of international criticism...over human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech" in Azerbaijan. In an April 15 editorial, "The Washington Post" cited Ismayilova's imprisonment, urging that more attention be directed at what the newspaper called "Azerbaijan’s deepening state of tyranny."

A letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on April 13 and signed by more than 20, analysts, academics, NGO leaders, and former diplomats expressed alarm at the country's "deteriorating human rights situation," and called on the Secretary to impose sanctions against Azerbaijan if, among other measures, political prisoners are not released.

Ismayilova was arrested and jailed on December 5, 2014 on charges of inciting a former colleague to attempt suicide -- charges that have since been withdrawn by her accuser. In February 2015, she was convicted of libel in a closed-door proceeding; in March, she was presented with new charges of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power. Ismayilova has rejected all charges against her as politically motivated and false, and RFE/RL has characterized them as having "no basis in reality."

Ismayilova, who also works with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, has reported extensively on the financial activities of family members of President Ilham Aliyev. Since 2012, she has been targeted by government media outlets and threatened with physical harm and arrest. In February 2014, official media accused her of spying for the United States after she met with U.S. Senate staffers in Baku.

RFE/RL's Baku Bureau was raided and sealed shut by Azerbaijani agents on December 26, 2014.

The Goldsmith award will be presented on May 5 at the annual PEN American Center Literary Gala in New York.