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On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chair Urges Azerbaijan: Free Khadija!

WASHINGTON—On May 3, Chairman Rep. Chris Smith of the Helsinki Commission Issued the following statement:  

“Today marks World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of the media is an essential foundation for democracy and human rights every day of the year. Journalists play a critical role in ensuring free and fair elections, combating corruption, and holding governments accountable.  In some OSCE countries, they do so at extraordinary personal risk.  Let’s not forget Anna Politkovskaya or the many other Russian journalists murdered in the past fifteen years – whose killers have still not been brought to justice. Press freedom remains unknown in Russia. But today we remember above all Khadija Ismayilova, a fearless investigative journalist harassed and currently imprisoned by the government of Azerbaijan.”

Anna Politkovskaya testified on human rights abuses in the Chechnya war before a hearing Rep. Smith chaired in 2003 – and was murdered in Moscow in 2006. In 2007 Chairman Smith authored H. Con. Res. 151 on Politkovskaya and other independent journalists killed in Russia since 2000, which passed the House by a vote of 388-1.

Beginning in 2010 Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, published hard-hitting investigative reports on corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. In response, the Azerbaijani state security services tried to intimidate her. When that failed, in 2014, the government arrested her on trumped-up charges.  

“If the Government of Azerbaijan thought it could deflect attention from its abuses by locking up Khadija, they were sorely mistaken.  In fact, Khadija’s continued imprisonment only serves as a constant reminder of the corruption she sought to expose.  Her imprisonment is wrong and she should be released immediately.”

In December 2014 the Government of Azerbaijan arrested investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on spurious charges and subsequently raided the offices of her employer, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25, 2015, and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan.  The Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadijah Ismayilova can be found here. Her recent editorial in the Washington Post can be found here. 

Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

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