- Published: 26 May 2016
RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova has walked free from an Azerbaijani prison and vowed to keep on working after the Supreme Court reduced her 7 1/2-year prison sentence to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years.
The court made the decision on May 25 after hearing an appeal by the journalist. Ismayilova was not in the courtroom when the ruling was issued, but was released from custody a short time later.
"Greetings! I am out of prison," Ismayilova said on Facebook. "Thank you all for your support. I am strong and full of energy. I will continue my work as a journalist."
Ismayilova was detained in December 2014 and sentenced in September 2015 on charges that have been widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning reporting linking the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to corruption.
Her imprisonment had elicited international condemnation against the Aliyev government and Western governments and press-freedom groups had repeatedly called for her release.
"This is a great day for Khadija, and for all journalists and for free speech everywhere," RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said. "We are overjoyed for Khadija and her family and can't wait for her to get back to work."
The Baku court reversed Ismayilova's convictions on charges of misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but upheld her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
WATCH: Khadija Ismayilova speaks after her release.
Western governments and rights groups welcomed news of her release, and urged Baku to free other journalists and government critics widely seen as political prisoners.
"We view this as a positive step, and we encourage the Azerbaijani government to drop the remaining charges against her," the U.S. State Department said.
As Azerbaijan continues to expand freedom of expression and space for civic and political participation, this will only continue to strengthen the country of Azerbaijan and our bilateral relationship.
The office of European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said Ismayilova's release "marks a further step in progress toward Azerbaijan's compliance with its international commitments," and called for "the release and rehabilitation of all those currently imprisoned or under restriction of movement in Azerbaijan on political grounds."
The Baku court's decision was "truly great news," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel said on Twitter.
Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued astatement calling Ismayilova's release "a very positive step."
"Unfortunately, Ismayilova's sentence has only been suspended, and I call on the authorities to drop all charges against her and release the remaining imprisoned journalists," Mijatovic wrote.
Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament and a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the development in comments to RFE/RL.
"I think this is an achievement of those who stood behind and requested her release because [Ismayilova] is a human rights defender," Austrevicius said. "She is a symbol of democratic society and I hope this tendency will continue in Azerbaijan and all political detainees or prisoners will be released sooner or later."
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a press release that the decision was "cause for celebration, but does not erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges."
John Lansing, the chief executive officer and director of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, called on Baku to halt the "harassment, surveillance, and intimidation that she suffered before her detainment." The Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including RFE/RL.
Lansing said Azerbaijani authorities should allow RFE/RL’s Baku bureau to reopen, and to stop investigations of other journalists who worked at the RFE/RL bureau before the government "unjustly" shut it down in December 2014. And he said Baku should lift travel restrictions on Ismayilova, which had been in place since 2014.
PHOTO GALLERY: Khadija Ismayilova is released.
Ismayilova's supporters had sought to take her case to the European Court for Human Rights, and enlisted renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney in that effort.
Her release, Clooney said, was "a victory for all journalists who dare to speak truth to power."
"Khadija is a talented journalist who was instrumental in exposing corruption in her country," she said.
"Khadija deserves full acknowledgment of her innocence and should be allowed to resume her work as a journalist without further harassment by the government," Clooney said.
Ismayilova, 39, has been hailed for her investigative work, and received wide accolades including the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Her mother, Elmira, accepted the prize on Ismayilova’s behalf earlier this month and read an acceptance speech penned by her daughter.
"Humanity suffers when journalists are silenced," she said in the acceptance speech. "This is why some people believe that the killing of journalists constitutes a crime against humanity. As you gather here tonight, I ask you not to laud my work or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice."
The former Soviet republic has been ruled by the Aliyev family -- first Heidar, and then his son and current president, Ilham -- since shortly after the Soviet collapse. In recent years, authorities have tightened the screws on independent media, civil society groups and opposition politicians.
Freedom House, the U.S.-government-funded rights organization, has ranked Azerbaijan 189th out of 199 countries in its 2016 press survey. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 163rd out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.
Freedom House says there are still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
"We are delighted that Khadija is finally free after spending 537 days unjustly jailed," said Rebecca Vincent, an activist with the Sport for Rights coalition, which has been lobbying for Ismayilova’s release. "On the occasion of her release, we echo Khadija's call that we should focus not only on her case, but call for the releases of all political prisoners."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz's spokesman, Giacomo Fassina, told RFE/RL that the EU hopes "this is a positive signal that can be replicated in other cases."
Ismayilova has won other international honors before and after her imprisonment, including the PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the National Press Club's 2015 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, and the 2012 International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in Journalism award.
Amnesty International designated her as a "prisoner of conscience."
Ismayilova will turn 40 on May 27. Sport for Rights, an international coalition of activists, plans to hold rallies in 40 cities around the world on that date to call for Ismayilova’s full acquittal and for the release of Azerbaijan’s other political prisoners.
Speaking before the Supreme Court ruling in Baku, Ismayilova’s mother told RFE/RL she was optimistic her daughter would be released.
"Somehow, I am full of hope," Elmira Ismayilova said.