A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
BAKU -- Investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova says the Azerbaijani government decided to release her from prison because her detention had become an embarrassment and had failed to frighten other reporters from pursuing stories about high-level corruption.
In a May 26 interview one day after Azerbaijan's Supreme Court unexpectedly ordered her released from a Baku prison, the RFE/RL journalist also vowed to continue her work and shrugged off fears for her personal safety.
"My mother joked about this. She said: 'When you're in prison, you're safer than when you're free because they wouldn't just kill you like that [in prison],'" she said in an interview with RFE/RL at her home in the Azerbaijani capital.
She said she had no way to influence the government if it wanted to kill or harm her now that she is free.
"Therefore, I can't let it bother me. I can only answer for my own person. I'm preparing to do my work and do the work that I was doing," she said.
Ismayilova, who celebrates her 40th birthday on May 27, was detained in December 2014 and sentenced last September to 7 1/2 years in prison after being convicted on charges widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning reporting on the secretive wealth of the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Her most notable investigations include a report on how Aliyev's relatives personally profited in the construction of a $134 million concert hall built for the 2012 Eurovision pop song contest in Baku.
Coming amid a mounting campaign against independent media, civil society activists, and opposition politicians, Ismayilova's arrest elicited international condemnation against the Aliyev government. Western governments and press-freedom groups had repeatedly called for her release.
The Supreme Court reversed her convictions on May 25 and reduced her punishment to a suspended sentence after upholding earlier convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
Ismayilova said the decision was unexpected for her given the continuing pressure against journalists and activists.
"I wasn't convinced that the government was prepared to show goodwill toward political prisoners and prisoners of conscience," she said. "But evidently, the pressure put on the authorities to release me was very effective, and the government realized in the end that holding me in prison was more costly than letting me go, and therefore they simply released me."
WATCH: Ismayilova says she was able to remain optimistic in custody, despite her ordeal
She said that, while in prison, she tried to keep her spirits high and smiled regularly, which caught the attention of her guards.
"Even the prison officials were asking why I'm smiling all the time," she said.
Ismayilova said that by arresting her, the government had clearly hoped to frighten reporters and others from investigating high-level corruption and cronyism.
"This didn't happen. There weren't fewer [reports]. In fact, there were more. There were a greater number of investigations published both in the international media and the national press. Therefore, they didn't succeed," she said.
She called on Azerbaijan's government, which denies that it has political prisoners, to allow RFE/RL to reopen its Baku bureau, which was shuttered by authorities in December 2014.
"It's important for the Azerbaijani people to receive the professional and unbiased news coverage that was provided by [RFE/RL] so far," she said. "It's very important for the Azerbaijani audience that the radio staff should be able to continue to work."
Asked about celebrating her birthday so soon after her release, she said she wished others would continue to work to free other political prisoners still being held in Azerbaijan.
"My birthday wish is: Keep doing whatever you can to get someone out of prison, because it is important," she said. "It worked with me. It can work with others."
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL