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One Year Into Jailing, Ismayilova Vows To Keep Fighting For Rights

Khadija Ismayilova has continued to do the job that won her awards before her arrest: working to highlight human rights abuses and government corruption in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state. And she says she won't stop.

Jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was standing inside a soundproof isolation booth at Baku's Court of Appeals when she managed to issue her latest report on rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

Knowing that Judge Ilgar Murguzov could flip a switch to mute her microphone at any point during the November 19 hearing, Ismayilova demonstrated the power of her pen by hastily scribbling two sentences and pressing the message to the glass.

"On Sunday, underage detainees in Cells 63 and 64 of Bloc 2 were banging on the doors in protest," it read. "They were beaten and illegally moved into solitary confinement."

In her year behind bars, RFE/RL contributor Ismayilova has continued to do the job that won her awards before her arrest: working to highlight human rights abuses and government corruption in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state. And she says she won't stop.

To mark the first anniversary of her imprisonment, Ismayilova this week passed a message to RFE/RL through her family from Women's Prison No. 4 in Baku, where she was transferred on November 27 to serve a 7 1/2-year prison sentence.

"I am still on my journey," she said in the December 3 message. "I continue my fight. As on the first day that I arrived in jail, I still have my smile and my sense of humor. At my trials, I feel as though I have been the winner."

Ismayilova mocks her September conviction on tax-evasion and fraud charges, describing the case as a trumped-up attempt to silence her and discredit her reporting on corruption at the highest levels of President Ilham Aliyev's government.

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In lieu of silence, she has spotlighted alleged abuses within Azerbaijan's justice system and the Kurdaxani pretrial detention center outside of Baku where she was held for nearly a year after her arrest on December 5, 2014.

The power of Ismayilova's pen was demonstrated by the speed of the government's response to her scribbled words at her November 19 court hearing.

Later the same day, she was visited by a representative from Azerbaijan's Human Rights Commission who promised to investigate her complaint. Ismayilova stressed that solitary confinement for detainees under the age of 18 violates Azerbaijan's human rights obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Two days later, Rashid Rumzadeh, head of the National Prevention Group of the government's Human Rights Commission, announced that Ismayilova's complaint had been investigated.

Rumzadeh said the underage detainees violated the detention center's rules and were moved to different cells, but he denied that they had been punished with solitary confinement.

Singing For Freedom

In her pretrial detention cell at Kurdaxani, Ismayilova would sing opera arias. At first, her cellmates complained about the peculiar daily routine. But Ismayilova won them over by explaining they have the right to sing.

She says she sings because she and other inmates can, and it is vital not only to know your rights but to exercise those rights every day.

Other acts gained Ismayilova respect from fellow inmates.

During one court appearance, Ismayilova mentioned that Kurdaxani jail was not feeding detainees the required daily meat allowance. The jailers promptly increased meat portions for all inmates.

Ismayilova also helped overturn one young girl's pretrial detention order at Kurdaxani by writing the appeal for her.

Khadija Ismayilova: One Year Behind Bars
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About 90 percent of the books sent to Khadija by friends are still circulating at Kurdaxani because Ismayilova gave them to other inmates once she finished them.

Due to stomach surgery shortly before she was jailed, Ismayilova has the right to receive home-cooked meals from her mother.

Her mother always brought four extra portions and when the jailers at Kurdaxani would allow a delivery, Ismayilova shared the food with her cellmates.

Getting The Word Out

The authorities try to prevent Ismayilova from filing reports from jail.

Most letters she has written have been seized without being delivered. On several occasions, prison authorities have searched her cell and confiscated her notes -- including trial material she was preparing for her defense and communications with her attorneys.

Still, at trial appearances, Ismayilova highlighted the vast riches compiled outside the oil-rich country by President Aliyev's family.

From within the soundproof dock, she cleverly circumvented the judge's microphone switch by telling the court she owned specific properties and offshore companies in Panama, Dubai, and Britain. She then apologized for making "a mistake," adding that she'd meant to say the owners were members of the president's family.

Ismayilova has also managed to sneak some writing out of jail through intermediaries -- including letters published by The Washington Post and by two journalistic organizations to which she contributed before her arrest -- RFE/RL and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

In a February letter, Ismayilova wrote: "It is not easy at all to move justice forward, but always worth trying. Even when the result is a failure, for the sake of justice, for our own sake, 'what for' is more important than 'how' and 'when.'"

In another letter, smuggled out in March, Ismayilova detailed how the authorities denied her the right to visits by her relatives and lawyers. She wrote: "The fight between good and evil goes on, and the most important thing is that this fight should not end.... Prison is not frightening for those trying to right a twisted scale, or for those who are subject to threats for doing the right thing. We see clearly what we must fight for."

Ismayilova also completed an Azerbaijani translation of a novel called Children Of The Jacaranda Tree by Iranian-born author Sahar Delijani -- a story that gives voice to thousands of political prisoners killed during a 1988 purge within Iran's prisons. She managed to sneak her translation out of Kurdaxani for publication.

Future Expectations

Ismayilova says her jailers increase pressure on her every time her smuggled work is released.

She was placed in solitary confinement at Kurdaxani after her February and March letters were published abroad. She wrote later that a positive side punishment was the view of a tree from the window of the solitary-confinement cell.

The authorities also began body searches of her lawyers and relatives after their visits to try to stop her from smuggling out her writings.

On November 25, Judge Murguzov rejected Ismayilova's appeal against her conviction.

Now, from the quarantine area for new arrivals at Women's Prison No. 4 in Baku, Ismayilova says she expects further appeals to be rejected by her last remaining recourse in Azerbaijan -- the country's supreme court.

Failing there, Ismayilova plans to take her case to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg and present examples of what she says were violations of her right to a fair trial. Those include the confiscation of her defense notes, the denial of private meetings with her attorneys, and the muting of testimony.

Meanwhile, Ismayilova says she is eager to complete the adaptation process at Women's Prison No. 4 and be moved in with other prisoners so that she can document any rights abuses she encounters there.