“My crime? Investigative journalism.” Cano Prize Winner Khadija Ismayilova has been in prison in Azerbaijan since 2015

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Khadija Ismayilova was awarded for her achievements as investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, especially for exposing high-level government corruption President Ilham Aliyev’s nepotism and Azerbaijan’s grave human rights record. Ismayilova is a contributor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. UNESCO’s 2016 Guillermo prize was published on World Press Freedom Day.

Each year the $25 000 prize is given to an outstanding contributor to press freedom defence, especially when it is achieved in the face of danger. The prize is awarded during the celebration of World Press Freedom Day.

Ismayilova cannot receive her award herself because she is still imprisoned after being sentenced to seven and a half years in jail since 2015.

She was alleged of libel, illegal business activity, tax evasion and abuse of power. However, according to Committee to Protect Journalists, “Since her arrest, Ismayilova and her lawyer have denied the allegations against her, which they said were in retaliation for her coverage.”

In her final statement to the court, Ismayilova saw the irony of the situation, when she told the judge, “To accuse the person who investigated the presidential family’s stolen money stored in offshore accounts, its abuse of state deals and of contracts with offshore companies and groups, and its evasion of taxes was very funny.”

Ismaylova was the first person who revealed the evidence of president Aliyev’s family involvement on businesses which the government denied they had any dealings with, said Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project editor Drew Sullivan to RFE/RL in 2016.

“The government’s propaganda allows people to forget about it but when you see the evidence and when the documents are there, you can’t hide it any longer. The fact that the government reacted as it did to Khadija shows that they believe she was having an effect [in uncovering official corruption],” stated Sullivan.


Ismayilova’s Work Continues

Ismayilova knew the consequences of exposing the government’s corruption, but she did not back off. In her Cano Prize’s acceptance letter she also called others to defend press freedom and justice. “Don’t be afraid. Your sacrifice is worth it… …Fight with me for freedom, and for truth.”

Azerbaijan’s government’s attempt to silence Ismayilova by imprisoning her may actually brought more international attention to her as well as the real cause of her imprisonment, as Denis Krivosheev from Amnesty International elaborated, “The government has stepped up its brutal crackdown on political activists, journalists, human rights defenders – indeed anyone who dares to publicly raise a critical voice.”

Meanwhile, in her final statement presented to the court Ismayilova said, “I might be in prison, but the work will continue.”

Her words turned out to be true as this year Ilham Aliyev and his family members’ names are found in the Panama Papers. This is the largest data leak in history, with 11 billion megabytes of data leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutche Zeitung.


Text: Jennifer Sidharta
Photo: Jenni Toivonen

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