The decision was made after hearing an appeal from the journalist on the same day. Ismayilova was not in court at the time, but her lawyer Javad Javadov commented that hopes for such a decision had been low. According to Javadov, “Today’s court decision has kept two of four charges and as a result the term was reduced to 3 1/2 years. She is also prohibited from working for any state or local governmental agency during two years.” The court reversed Ismayilova’s convictions for misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but retained her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira Ismayilova, was allowed to attend the trial and was met outside the court by a group supporting her daughter, carrying balloons portraying Khadija to celebrate the verdict, which came two days before Ismayilova’s 40th birthday. “I want to thank everyone who came here today, and everyone in the world who has fought for my daughter and to reach today’s result […] if the court would not have taken this decision today, the government would have faced an international campaign condemning Azerbaijani authorities and demanding Khadija’s freedom,” Ismayilova’s mother told Meydan TV.
To mark Ismayilova’s birthday on May 27 and call for her immediate and unconditional release, the Sport for Rights campaign along with other human rights watchdog organizations initiated a series of protests in cities around the world. The campaign #FreeKhadija aimed for the symbolic number of 40 protests. Gatherings will continue, and participants will celebrate Ismayilova’s release, call for her full acquittal, and demand the release of Azerbaijan’s remaining political prisoners.
Ismayilova’s appeal follows a snap presidential pardon in March of 14 political prisoners, including human rights activist Rasul Jafarov and members of the N!DA pro-democracy youth movement. A fifteenth prisoner, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, was released less than two weeks later.
Some observers have asserted that the pardons were timed to commemorate the Nowruz holiday. However, they also coincided with President Ilham Aliyev’s pursuit of an invitation from U.S. President Barack Obama to attend a nuclear summit in Washington.
Mehman Aliyev, who heads Azerbaijan’s privately owned Turan news agency, says that after years of ignoring international opinion the authorities are desperately seeking to shore up Western support and may see Ismayilova as a useful bargaining chip. “I think there are some intensive negotiations going on, and the government is taking steps accordingly,” Aliyev told RFE/RL, adding that the issue of Ismayilova’s release “is part of something much bigger: a resolution of the economic crisis, Karabakh, regional security, and so on. The Azerbaijani government wants to see some reassuring moves from the West.”
On her way home, Ismayilova laughingly told journalists that “I will continue my journalist work and will do it more properly. I started to learn Spanish, which will help me read foreign papers in original language.” She denied allegations that restrictions had been imposed on her journalistic activity and added: “I am going to apply to the European Court of Human Rights and consider other legal steps to obtain full justice. I will work on having all charges and the suspended term dropped. We will do our investigations and continue what we were doing before the arrest. There is a lot of work to do and keeping spirits high is very important.”
Earlier this month, Ismayilova was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which honors outstanding contributions to the defense or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world. Ismayilova thanked international human rights organizations who were “fighting for political prisoners in Azerbaijan and tirelessly working on defending their rights,” and called on them to continue their activity for the sake of other political prisoners who might be less known internationally. She stressed that “Fighting for human rights should be open and transparent. Human rights is not a shameful topic to be discussed behind the scenes and unfortunately heads of countries refrain from open discussions on this theme. I hope that one day the human rights issue will be the highest priority on the agenda of their diplomatic meetings.”
Sport for Rights coordinator Rebecca Vincent commented: “We are delighted that Khadija is finally free, after spending 537 days unjustly jailed. On the occasion of her release, we echo Khadija’s call that we should not focus only on her case, but call for the release of all political prisoners and concrete steps to address the rampant corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan that Khadija has sacrificed so much to expose.”