WASHINGTON, July 29, 2015 -- Today, the National Press Club presented its highest press freedom prize to jailed Azeri investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova has been held in pretrial detention in a Baku prison for 234 days on charges many observers link to her investigations of high-level corruption involving Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, and which could bring a prison sentence of 19 years.
RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic accepted the award on Ismayilova’s behalf, saying "Khadija is in prison because of her journalism...This award is an acknowledgement of her courage and her convictions, but it is also a call to all of us here tonight to condemn her imprisonment and demand her freedom."
Each year, the National Press Club presents its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards to reporters or others who manifest the values of a free press. Other recipients of the 2015 award are Austin Tice, who has been detained in Syria since 2012, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year – also on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
On July 24, dozens of journalists, activists, foreign diplomats, and supporters gathered in front of a court building in Baku to attend the first hearing in Ismayilova’s trial. Most of them were not allowed to enter the courtroom to observe the proceedings. A judge rejected motions to dismiss the criminal case and to grant Ismayilova house arrest as a substitute for pretrial detention, and ordered Ismayilova to return to court on August 7.
During the hearing, Ismayilova addressed the court, declaring that President Aliyev “has imprisoned me to hinder my journalistic activity. But even though I‘m here, my colleagues continue their investigations."
Among the many organizations advocating for her freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on Azeri authorities to release Ismayilova “as a crucial first step in addressing Azerbaijan's tarnished image which reached a new low amid the European Games last month."