Khadija Ismayilova, a jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL, crowned her journalistic achievements on May 5 by winning a prestigious media freedom award from the PEN American Center.
Chants of "Khadija, Khadija" erupted from the more than 800 guests gathered at a gala awards dinner in New York as top names in the journalism world moved to recognize Ismayilova's bravery and persistence in exposing corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan.
"Khadija Ismayilova is the leading investigative reporter in Azerbaijan, and she has tackled corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the PEN center, which advocates for freedom of expression.
The award conferred on the embattled Ismayilova is designed to recognize "an imprisoned writer of conscience in particularly dire circumstances."
Ismayilova has been honored previously, receiving the Swedish National Press Club’s Freedom of Speech award.
She was not present to accept the award in New York, which came as she begins her sixth month of detention in Baku.
Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani writer who himself was jailed in 2009 for his critical views of the government, accepted the award on her behalf, urging journalists and activists to "spread the word about her courage and struggle for freedom all over the world."
Ismayilova was arrested on December 5 on allegations that she incited a man to attempt suicide. Later, the Azerbaijani government added new charges against her, alleging tax evasion, illegal business activities, and abuse of power.
Ismayilova denies wrongdoing and says all the charges are politically motivated, a contention echoed by international rights groups and her many friends and fans at the New York dinner.
"Her imprisonment is a violation of a very central human rights principle. It's a call to action," said Khaled Hosseini, Afghan-American author of The Kite Runner, an acclaimed novel Ismayilova translated into Azeri.
"She is a critical voice. She brings awareness," he said, in a video about the journalist presented at the gala.
"She would ask tough questions -- it didn't matter if it was an opposition member, or a government [official]," said Kenan Aliyev, former director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
"Anyone who appeared on her show had a difficult time, and this is why her show was [the] most popular show in Azerbaijan. And she was a role model for young journalists," he said.
"I hope this award will bring us closer to Khadija's freedom," he said. "Khadija must be released and the charges against her be understood for what they are: punishment for seeking the truth."
On May 5, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke called on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to release Ismayilova.
The United States "is deeply concerned by the incarceration of all of those detained in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms,” he said.