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(Geneva) – An imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist will be honored on November 19, 2015, with the prestigious Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch will honor Khadija Ismayilova in Geneva, as the government of Azerbaijan pushes ahead with a sweeping crackdown on its critics and as a key United Nations body reviews the country’s record on torture.

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.

Khadija Ismayilova © Jahangir Yusif

“Khadija Ismayilova is unshakably dedicated to seeking the truth and promoting justice, not just in the abstract but for the many of the people she has met and written about,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Ismayilova’s integrity and courage are an inspiration.”

The Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges Award celebrates the valor of individuals who put their lives on the line to protect the dignity and rights of others. Human Rights Watch collaborates with these courageous activists to create a world in which people live free of violence, discrimination, and oppression.

Beginning in 2011, Ismayilova exposed the government’s unlawful expropriation of property and forced eviction of homeowners to make way for construction related to the Eurovision Song Contest. 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 arrested in December 2014 on spurious charges. She was sentenced on September 1, 2015 to seven and a half years in prison after a politically motivated prosecution, flawed trial, and a campaign to discredit her.

“Azerbaijani authorities should immediately vacate Ismayilova’s conviction and set her free,” Gogia said.

In the past two years, the Azerbaijan authorities have imprisoned many of the country’s most outspoken human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and many political activists on politically motivated charges, and drove others into exile or hiding. Among those imprisoned are the renowned human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, the human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, the veteran human rights defender Leyla Yunus, the political activist Ilgar Mammadov, and the elections monitor Anar Mammadli.

On November 12, Yunus’s husband, Arif, who was convicted to seven years in prison in August 2015, was transferred to house arrest due to his ailing health, pending appeal hearing.

The authorities have also frozen the bank accounts of independent civic groups and their leaders; denied them access to funds by refusing to register foreign grants; and adopted new, draconian legislation that has made it all but impossible to carry out independent human rights work in the country.

In June, during the UN Human Rights Council session, 25 countries, led by Ireland, adopted a joint statement condemning “systematic silencing of critical voices in Azerbaijan” and calling for “immediate and unconditional release of government critics.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, also condemned the crackdown in September, and called for the release of government critics.

The UN Committee Against Torture began on November 11 to review Azerbaijan’s compliance with the Convention against Torture. The review is another key opportunity for international actors to scrutinize the crackdown and highlight the plight of detained journalists and activists. Several of them are in poor health and have made credible allegations of ill-treatment and abuse in custody, Human Rights Watch said.

“The UN should continue to shed light to the concerted government effort in Azerbaijan to silence its critics,” Gogia said. “The UN should engage the Azerbaijan authorities publicly and call for immediate release of anyone who has been unfairly imprisoned and an end to Azerbaijan’s draconian crackdown on dissent.”


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