Khadija Ismayilova is a prominent investigative journalist who has dedicated her life to fighting for human rights in the oil-rich former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, a country under increasingly harsh authoritarian rule. As Baku bureau chief for two years at Radio Azadlig, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijan service, and then as anchor of a talk show, Ismayilova conducted painstaking research and reported on allegations of corruption, malfeasance, and unethical business dealings among government officials and within the ruling family’s highest ranks. She is a fierce and outspoken advocate for releasing unjustly imprisoned activists amid Azerbaijan’s ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression and association.
Beginning in 2011, she exposed the government’s unlawful expropriation of property and forced eviction of homeowners to make way for construction related to the Eurovision Song Contest. She advocated tirelessly for fair and just compensation for people whose property was expropriated. In other investigative reports, she exposed allegations of the ruling family’s apparent leveraging of the transportation system, banks, government mining operations, and more. The government retaliated with threats, intimidation, and a vicious smear campaign against her in state-run media.
Undeterred, she resumed her investigative reporting. As Azerbaijan prepared to host the first European Games in June 2015, the government’s crackdown on independent voices worsened. Several of the country’s top human rights defenders were thrown in jail, including Ismayilova, who was imprisoned in December 2014 on spurious charges. She was sentenced on September 1, 2015 to seven years and six months in prison after a politically motivated prosecution, flawed trial and a campaign to discredit her.
Human Rights Watch honors Khadija Ismayilova for her extraordinary courage as a journalist and human rights activist in the face of the unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.