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Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko is one of the imprisoned women being highlighted by the U.S. State Department's new campaign.

WASHINGTON -- The United States has launched a campaign to highlight cases of women who Washington says have been “unjustly imprisoned” by governments around the world.

Under the initiative announced September 1 by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the U.S. State Department will profile 20 cases of women deemed by the United States to be “political prisoners” or “prisoners of concern.”

The campaign will profile Ukrainian military pilot and parliament member Nadia Savchenko, jailed in Russia on charges of participating in the murder of Russian journalists covering the Ukraine conflict, as well as Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismayilova, critics of the Azerbaijani government imprisoned on charges widely considered to be politically motivated.

Others include Uzbek rights activist Matluba Kamilova, who Human Rights Watch says has been imprisoned for exercising free speech, and Iranian student activist Bahareh Hedayat, who was jailed amid a 2009 crackdown after street protests over a contentious presidential election.

“In naming these women, we are sending a message to their governments and others like them: If you want to empower women, don’t imprison them on the basis of their views or on the basis of the rights that they’re fighting for,” Power told reporters in Washington.

“Free these 20 women and free the countless women and girls like them behind bars,” Power added.

The State Department has dubbed the initiative the #FreeThe20 campaign. It will profile one case per day in the run-up to the 20th anniversary this month of a UN initiative to empower women “in all spheres of public and private life.”

The campaign kicked off by highlighting the case of Chinese rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was detained by Chinese police in July in a sweeping crackdown on lawyers and civic activists.

“We will continue to repeat Wang Yu’s name and that of other women like her over the coming days, women like the brave Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova,” Power said.

A Baku court on September 1 sentenced Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and a contributor to RFE/RL, to 7 1/2 years in prison after convicting her of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.

Rights groups call the conviction retribution for her reports on corruption involving senior government officials.

With reporting by The Associated Press
Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova Sentenced To 7 1/2 Years
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An Azerbaijani court has sentenced investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova to 7 1/2 years in prison after convicting her on charges that rights groups have called retribution for her reports on corruption involving senior government officials.

The Baku court on September 1 found Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL, guilty of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power.

In addition to the prison sentence, Ismayilova, 39, was also barred from holding public office for three years and was fined $300 to cover legal expenses. The court found her not guilty on a charge of inciting an individual to attempt suicide, after the complainant withdrew his accusation.

The verdict drew swift condemnation from colleagues, human rights groups, and media freedom organizations, while Western governments and officials said they were “deeply troubled” by the outcome of the case.

Ismayilova, who has reported extensively on the financial dealings of long-ruling President Ilham Aliyev and members of his family, has strongly denied the charges and called the trial a "scam" meant to silence her work.

The verdict and sentence drew swift condemnation from colleagues, human rights groups, and media freedom organizations.

Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL’s editor in chief, said Ismayilova's trial was "an example of politics, not law."

"There was no merit, ever, to any of the charges against her and there was no due process during her trial. The authorities simply decided to silence her at any price," Pejic said in a statement on September 1.

ALSO READ: The Reporting That Jailed Khadija

Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira Ismayilova, told reporters in Baku that the ruling will not stop or silence the award-winning investigative journalist.

"Khadija won't stop," she said outside the courthouse after the verdict. "Her mouth won't close. Her pen won't dry up. She will continue to talk and continue to write. She is a fighter. And she is very strong. And she is telling everyone to stay strong and continue the fight."

She said that her daughter's reaction when the verdict and sentence was announced was to laugh, "just like she always does."

WATCH: Jailed Journalist's Mother: 'Khadija Won't Stop'

Jailed Journalist's Mother: "Khadija Won't Stop"
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In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States is “deeply troubled” by the sentence handed to Ismayilova, calling her case “another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press.”

“We urge the government of Azerbaijan to release Ms. Ismayilova and others incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms,” Toner said in a statement.

U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL that he is “troubled” by Ismayilova’s conviction “on these highly suspect charges” and that “Azerbaijan's leaders will not move their country forward by stifling dissent and cracking down on the basic rights of their citizens."

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and its enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, said in a statement that the" trial raised fundamental questions on the impartiality of the court and the legality of the accusation."

The office of Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland, meanwhile, expressed concerns “about the systemic deficiencies in the Azerbaijani judicial system and the worrying trend of increasing cases against human rights defenders and journalists, which has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the country.”

Britain's minister for Europe, David Lidington, said he is “deeply troubled” by Ismayilova’s sentencing and urged Baku “to review her case in a transparent and fair manner.”

The verdict and sentence were strongly condemned by the OSCE’s media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, and by the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks.

Mijatovic on September 1 called the charges and the trial "unjust," saying that "they constitute yet another clear signal that the authorities are continuing to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan."

Muiznieks said the sentence "strikes yet another blow to respect for human rights and adherence to democracy and the rule of law in Azerbaijan."

"Ismayilova pays for her courageous work as an investigative journalist in a country where critical voices are muzzled one after the other," he said.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, called the verdict "outrageous," saying that it "shows the Azerbaijani authorities' willingness to subvert the law to exact revenge against critics."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also condemned the verdict and sentence, saying that it “has determined the charges to be retaliation for Ismayilova’s reporting on corruption in the Azerbaijani government.”

Nina Ognianova, the coordinator for the media rights group’s Europe and Central Asia Program, said, "Ismayilova's trial has been a farce, yet the consequences for her, and for all Azerbaijani journalists, are gravely serious."

In her final remarks to the court on August 31, Ismayilova called Azerbaijan's government a "repression machine."

Before she was cut off by the judge, Ismayilova told the court that her reporting proved Aliyev had "squandered [the] state budget and his family members were direct beneficiaries."

WATCH: Ismayilova Delivers Defiant Speech In Court

Ismayilova Delivers Defiant Speech
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She denounced what she called "the presidential family's stolen money stored in offshore accounts, their abuse of state deals and contracts with offshore companies and groups, and of evading taxes."

Ismayilova also voiced confidence that "real journalists and mindful citizens" would continue to expose high-level corruption in the oil-producing former Soviet republic.

She said, "Yes, I might be in prison, but the work will continue."

State prosecutors had requested a nine-year prison sentence for Ismayilova. She has been jailed since her arrest in December.

Her case has been cited by critics of Aliyev as an example of how his government muzzles dissent and jails its opponents.

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

Rights advocates, Western officials, and media watchdogs have repeatedly called for the release of all imprisoned journalists and free-speech advocates in Azerbaijan, including Ismayilova.

Several journalists and rights activists in Azerbaijan also were sentenced to prison terms in 2014 on charges that include tax evasion, illegal business activity, and hooliganism.

Their cases are widely seen as part of a government-led crackdown on dissent in the oil-producing former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus, which Aliyev has ruled since he succeeded his father as president in 2003.

Aliyev has repeatedly dismissed such criticism.

In a bid to stop protesters from grouping together ahead of the verdict and sentencing, Baku police on September 1 ordered the closure of a privately owned tea house near the court building where Ismayilova's supporters have been gathering during the closed trial.

More than 100 of her supporters had gathered at the tea house on August 31 in anticipation of a verdict.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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