BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A prominent, award-winning Azerbaijani journalist was released on probation Wednesday following a storm of international protests about her imprisonment, which has been widely seen as an attempt to silence a critical voice.
Khadija Ismayilova has been praised by human rights and free-speech organizations around the world, who call her conviction and her 7 ½-year prison sentence retribution for her reports on alleged corruption involving President Ilham Aliyev and his family in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
She vowed to continue her investigative reporting and to seek a full acquittal as she walked free Wednesday.
"I will continue my journalist work with renewed energy," Ismayilova said. "I feel younger and more energetic, and I will fight until the end."
In September 2015, a court in Azerbaijan convicted Ismayilova, a contributor to U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of several financial crimes. On Wednesday, Azerbaijan's Supreme Court ruled to replace the earlier sentence with a 3 ½-year suspended sentence and ordered her released on probation. The court set a five-year period for her probation.
Rights groups have criticized the Azerbaijani government for cracking down on independent media and opposition activists. Several other journalists and rights activists also have been imprisoned in what has been widely seen as an effort by the government to stifle dissent.
Ismayilova was convicted on charges of embezzlement, illegal business activity, tax evasion and abuse of power, which international rights groups have denounced as trumped-up.
Her lawyer, Fariz Namazli, said the Supreme Court dropped the embezzlement and abuse of power charges but kept the charges of tax evasion and illegal business activity.
Giorgi Gogia, regional representative of Human Rights Watch, told the AP that Ismayilova's release was "way overdue" and urged the Azerbaijani government to release others in jail and to allow them to "work freely in the country."
Amnesty International welcomed Ismayilova's release, adding that she must be fully acquitted. The group also demanded that numerous other prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan must be freed "to break this dangerous pattern of fear and repression."
Under the terms of probation, Ismayilova is required to reside in Baku, the capital, and is forbidden from traveling abroad for five years without official permission.
In addition to RFE/RL, a host of media and human rights groups worked to press for Ismayilova's release since her arrest in December 2014, among them the Vienna-based International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, and The Associated Press and Britain's Press Association as members of the World News Agencies Council.
According to CPJ, Azerbaijan ranks among the 10 most censored countries in the world.
"Today's ruling ordering Khadija Ismayilova freed is cause for celebration, but doesn't erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "We call on Azerbaijani authorities to remove the conditions on her freedom and to release all journalists imprisoned for their work immediately."
Ismayilova won the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
"The release on probation of Khadija Ismayilova, an intrepid force exposing corruption in Azerbaijan, is a victory for journalists everywhere who go up against the toughest regimes bent on silencing those who dare challenge them," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center.
UNESCO, which earlier this year awarded Ismayilova the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, welcomed her release as "a major step for freedom of expression, due process and the rule of law in Azerbaijan."