Azerbaijan: Reporter Khadija Ismayilova Free, Forty and Back in Business
The hard-won release from prison of Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova has been met with international elation, but observers warn that she remains on probation, as is freedom of expression in her home country.
An image of Ismayilova emerging from prison on May 25 with a smile and a here-I-am gesture spread online as a symbol of a collective victory over the powerful political machine that tried to silence her. "That's how you leave prison, smiling, [like] you've been to a nice vacation in Italy," said Keti Abashidze, South Caucasus coordinator for the Human Rights House Foundation. Abashidze along with several other of Ismayilova's friends, colleagues and supporters gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia on the reporter's 40th birthday, May 27.
They recalled that it was with that same smile that Ismayilova in late 2014 dismissed friends' pleas not to return from Strasbourg to Baku, where she was to face certain arrest. "Even the prison officials were asking me why I'm smiling all the time," Ismayilova said in videoed comments to RFE/RL, one of the outlets for which she worked.
Her globally acclaimed work and the positive attitude she has kept through her ordeal, which included blackmail with a sex tape, turned her into an international investigative journalism icon. As various celebrities and public figures spoke up for her, her imprisonment became an embarrassment for the international-spotlight-seeking Azerbaijani state.
For the international media and human-rights community, though, the fight for her release has become larger than a battle with one repressive state. "Her release is a victory for all journalists who dare to speak truth to power," said prominent human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who picked up Ismayilova's case.
The state of Azerbaijan still left limits on where Ismayilova can go from here, both professionally and physically. Ever-defiant, Ismayilova made it quite clear that she intends to go back to her work as a corruption-buster. On her birthday, she posted on her Facebook page "Panama Papers"-based reports on shady business in Azerbaijan along with American journalist Andy Rooney's ode to 40-something women.
At the gathering in Tbilisi, human-rights watchdogs warned that attention should stay on the Azerbaijani government's perceived human-rights transgressions. Ismayilova's release is the latest in a recent series of surprise releases of individuals considered political prisoners by international human rights groups. But Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus expert for Human Rights Watch, said that such releases work as a "revolving door" in Azerbaijan.
Releases are followed by arrests; as has already occurred, in Ismayilova's case, with the detention of a few N!DA youth activists.
Those released often leave the country, like peace activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, analyst Arif Yunus, or face travel and work restrictions, like Ismayilova. An opposition leader, Ilgar Mammadov, remains in jail despite international calls for his release and a 2014 European Court of Human Rights' ruling in his favor.
Media outlets and non-profits in a position to highlight corruption or abuse of power are effectively expelled. Through strict state control over foreign funding for local NGOs, the Azerbaijani government is starving the country's few remaining human rights-oriented groups, Gogia said.
Dave Bloss, regional director for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), for whom Ismayilova also worked, said that Azerbaijan and many other countries need more reporters like Ismayilova. "I hope she can multiply herself," he said.
*Human Rights Watch and OCCRP receive funding from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). EurasiaNet .org operates under the auspices of the OSF-New York City.
Khadija Ismayilova has worked also as a reporter for EurasiaNet.org.