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Khadija Ismayilova: When Your Principles Become Your Life

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

Today, June 5, Khadija Ismayilova has been in prison for six months. But everything started much earlier than December 5, 2014, when she was arrested and incarcerated.

At the very beginning, she faced menacing phone calls -- but she did not give up her principles. This was followed by ugly threats to those close to her. Again, she did not give up.

Khadija had a choice.

She could give up writing about corruption and keep a low profile for a while. Nobody would blame her. But she didn't. She could soften her position a little bit. But she didn't. She could have avoided certain “sensitive” topics and made her life easier by not investigating the dodgy dealings of Azerbaijan's "untouchables." But she didn't. On the principles of journalism, she just wouldn't compromise.

The Azerbaijani authorities were also forced to make a choice.

Would they continue to increase the pressure on Khadija and risk criticism from abroad?

Should they pretend to ignore her stories while preventing them from being published in the country, even though the Internet essentially made that impossible? Or should they instead question her investigative journalism? The problem was that there was nothing to question: facts speak for themselves.

When in March 2012, an explicit video appeared on the Internet containing intimate and illegally obtained images of Khadija, it was clear what path the authorities had decided to take: to silence her at any price. Lobbyists were hired to defend the Azerbaijani government's actions and soften the positions of foreign governments. The stage was set.

Khadija, again, proved to be as strong as her principles. She organized a press conference, showed the tape, and told everyone -- nobody will silence me and I’ll keep writing about corruption in my country. Everyone -- above all the Azerbaijani authorities -- wanted her to calm down. Even in more moderate political or media circles, she became a “troublemaker.”

True to her word, Khadija kept going. She published more investigative pieces about official corruption in Azerbaijan. “I know I can be arrested,” she said in October 2014. “If this is going to happen, I am ready.”


On December 5, 2014, police came to her apartment and took her to the prosecutor's office. The charges were absurd: a man had accused her of pressing him to commit suicide.

When that man denied such a thing had ever happened, the Baku authorities brought in new charges: embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power.The authorities said that RFE/RL's Baku bureau had committed financial crimes, even though the office is legally registered in Baku and an official Azerbaijani audit of RFE/RL's operation in 2012 found no evidence of any wrongdoing.

It didn't matter. RFE/RL's Baku office was illegally closed on December 26, 2014. Investigators and armed police officers ordered employees into a room while they ransacked the company safe and confiscated documents and official stamps. A court order said the search was part of an ongoing investigation into RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service in connection with laws on foreign funding of NGOs. Staff members were released after several hours and almost 20 employees were summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning. Some of them are no longer in Baku. Those who want to report for RFE/RL cannot get paid for their contributions because their bank accounts have been frozen.

Khadija Ismayilova made her choice. She decided to sacrifice her freedom for her strongly held principles of journalism. “Do not compromise on my behalf, please. I won't take it.” That was her message to RFE/RL two months ago.

The Azerbaijani government made its choice as well: Silence Khadija at any price and close down RFE/RL's Baku operation.

RFE/RL also made a choice. We stand behind Khadija and our other Azerbaijani colleagues. At some point, whenever this moment comes, Khadija will win. And she understands better than anyone the price of that victory. The awards she has received while being in prison from the PEN American Center, the Swedish Press Club, and the U.S. National Press Club have helped to keep her strength.

At RFE/RL, we are familiar with Khadija's pain, as many of our colleagues have suffered and some have lost their lives. Such pain is part of RFE/RL’s daily life. Many regimes and extremist groups have tried to silence RFE/RL -- nobody has and nobody will.

Nenad Pejic is RFE/RL's editor in chief