Azerbaijan yesterday (25 May) released jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was convicted of corruption charges last year, prompting reactions welcoming the country’s move toward press freedom and rule of law.
The decision to free Ismayilova was preceded by the amnesty of 14 jailed activists and opposition politicians on 17 March. Another prominent human rights activist was released on 28 March.
Ismayilova, an award-winning journalist and anti-graft crusader, was sentenced in September 2015 for seven-and-a-half years for economic crimes, in a case denounced by human rights groups as politically motivated.
The journalist walked out of prison beaming on Wednesday evening, following a Supreme Court ruling earlier in the day, having spent more than 17 months in jail since her initial arrest in December 2014.
“I am full of energy and will continue my journalistic work,” Ismayilova told journalists in brief comments before she headed home, AFP reported.
Ismayilova, who turns 40 on Friday (27 May), probed the vast riches allegedly amassed by President Ilham Aliyev and his family.
Human rights groups applauded the release, with Human Rights Watch’s Europe director, Lotte Leich, calling it the “best news in a long time”.
United Nations culture agency UNESCO, which last month awarded Ismayilova with the prestigious World Press Freedom Prize, welcomed her release as “a major step for freedom of expression, due process and the rule of law in Azerbaijan”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he hoped this was a “sign of improvement in the situation of freedom of press and opinion in Azerbaijan”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – which ranks Azerbaijan among 10 most censored countries in the world – called the decision to free Ismayilova a “cause for celebration”.
Ismayilova’s release, and the amnesty granted other jailed activists and opposition figures, takes place against the background of tectonic shifts in EU’s understanding of how to pursue relations with its neighbours.
EU-Azerbaijan relations reached a low in September 2015, when the European Parliament adopted a very harsh resolution criticising the regime. In response, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan decided to suspend its cooperation with the European Parliament and to withdraw from the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.
In the meantime, the EU “reviewed” its neighbourhood policy, recognising the limits to the leverage of the Union to promote its values among neighbours who don’t aspire to EU membership or association. More effective ways to promote democracy through economic projects and joint efforts in conflict prevention, counter-terrorism project and anti-radicalisation are sought.
The Eastern Partnership, which includes Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, has also been revamped, to reflect the wishes of the individual countries for the kind of future of relations they seek with the EU. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia seek EU membership are seeking EU membership, Belarus and Armenia have joined the Russia-led Eurasian union, while Azerbaijan seeks a partnership format of the type the EU has developed with Australia and South Korea.
The political relationship between Baku and Brussels has improved greatly in recent months, with visits to Azerbaijan of Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, of EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, and with the official launch of the construction of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) which will bring gas from the vast Azerbaijani Shah Deniz 2 field via western Turkey to Greece, Albania and across the Adriatic to Italy.
The ministerial meeting of the Eastern Partnership countries held on Monday (23 May) is reported to have reassured the EU’s partners, including Azerbaijan, that the bloc is keen on progressing in its relationships, despite geopolitical and economic challenges.
The Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Belgium, Fuad Isgandarov, has argued that on human rights, his country would make better progress if it is not pressured from the outside.