At a gala dinner in New York on May 5, the PEN American Center will award its prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award to jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
The same day, Ismayilova will mark the beginning of her sixth month in a Baku jail, where she awaits trial on charges she says are retribution for her hard-hitting reporting.
PEN's Goldsmith award is conferred annually "to an imprisoned writer of conscience in particularly dire circumstances," the NGO's press release states. Ismayilova is one of nearly 100 Azerbaijani civil-society activists who have faced criminal charges or other persecution in recent months.
Ismayilova, who works as a contributor to RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service, was arrested in December 2014 on charges of inciting a man to commit suicide. Her accuser, Tural Mustafayev, has since withdrawn his statement and has applied to prosecutors to officially retract his complaint. In the meantime, however, Azerbaijani authorities have levied new charges of tax evasion and embezzlement against the journalist.
Ismayilova and her supporters reject the allegations against her and say they are retribution for her investigative reporting into alleged corruption by President Ilham Aliyev, his family, and senior Azerbaijani officials.
The charges against Ismayilova "are fabricated -- they are invented and they are nonsense," said RFE/RL Azerbaijan Service Director Kenan Aliyev in remarks prepared for a May 4 United Nations press-freedom event in New York. "Just prior to her arrest, the president's most senior adviser accused her of spying for the United States. Khadija is guilty only of investigating corruption. She is in prison because the Azerbaijani authorities believe they have the power to silence anyone they want."
On May 5, U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke called for Ismayilova's release, saying that the United States "is deeply concerned by the incarceration of all of those detained in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms.”
Ismayilova, 38, has not yet faced trial on the main charges against her and her pretrial detention has been extended twice. After a closed trial in February, however, she was convicted of slander and fined 2,500 manats ($2,400).
She has also been disciplined while in custody for the written statements that she has occasionally issued through her lawyer.
Ismayilova's case has been seen as part of a broad crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan that began at least in mid-2014. Azerbaijani activists have assembled a list of nearly 100 other journalists and activists who have faced charges that appear to be politically motivated. Leading human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus -- who were active in compiling that list -- have been in custody since July 2014.
Authorities raided and closed down the Baku bureau of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and have chased several leading Western nongovernmental organizations out of the country in recent months.
Arch Puddington, vice president for research of the nongovernmental Freedom House, wrote in March that Azerbaijan has a "well-earned reputation for political repression" and "regularly makes news by shuttering civil-society groups."
Meanwhile, Baku is preparing to host the first-ever European Games, an athletic event held under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee that runs from June 12-28. The American PEN Center has written to the IOC asking it to condemn Baku's human-rights record and to call for Ismayilova's release.
Human Rights Watch has also called on European countries not to send high-level delegations to the games "unless people jailed for criticizing the government are freed."
Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani rights activist, blogger, and freelance contributor to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, who has been drawing international attention to the crackdown in Azerbaijan, describes Ismayilova as an "inspiration" and "the beating heart of justice and equality."
"Khadija for me is a symbol of hope, freedom, and womanliness," Geybullayeva told RFE/RL in written comments. "She is a professional. She is simply one incredible and courageous human being. I admire her passion."
Others to be honored with PEN awards on May 5 include playwright Tom Stoppard and Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose staff were killed in January by extremists angered by its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.