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RFE/RL Journalist Ismayilova Released From Custody

A screen shot of Khadija Ismayilova upon her release from prison on May 25.
A screen shot of Khadija Ismayilova upon her release from prison on May 25.

RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova walked free from an Azerbaijani prison and vowed to keep on working after the country's Supreme Court reduced her sentence from from 7 1/2 years in custody to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years.

The court made the decision on May 25 after hearing an appeal by the journalist. Ismayilova was not in the courtroom when the ruling was issued, but was released from custody a short time later.

"Greetings! I am out of prison," Ismayilova said on Facebook. "Thank you all for your support. I am strong and full of energy. I will continue my work as a journalist."

"This is a great day for Khadija, and for all journalists and for free speech everywhere," RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said. "We are overjoyed for Khadija and her family and can't wait for her to get back to work."

The Baku court's decision was "truly great news," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel said on Twitter.

The court reversed Ismayilova's convictions on charges of misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but upheld her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.

Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement calling Ismayilova's release "a very positive step."

"Unfortunately, Ismayilova's sentence has only been suspended, and I call on the authorities to drop all charges against her and release the remaining imprisoned journalists," Mijatovic wrote.

Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament and a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the development in comments to RFE/RL.

"I think this is an achievement of those who stood behind and requested her release because [Ismayilova] is a human rights defender," Austrevicius said. "She is a symbol of democratic society and I hope this tendency will continue in Azerbaijan and all political detainees or prisoners will be released sooner or later."

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a press release that the decision was "cause for celebration, but does not erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges."

Ismayilova was detained in December 2014 and sentenced in September 2015. Western governments and international press-freedom groups have called for her release.

ALSO READ: The Reporting That Jailed Khadija

The charges have widely been seen as retaliation for her award-winning investigative reporting linking the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to corruption.

"We are delighted that Khadija is finally free after spending 537 days unjustly jailed," said Rebecca Vincent, an activist with the Sport for Rights coalition, which has been lobbying for Ismayilova’s release. "On the occasion of her release, we echo Khadija's call that we should focus not only on her case, but call for the releases of all political prisoners."

European Parliament President Martin Schulz's spokesman, Giacomo Fassina, told RFE/RL that the EU hopes "this is a positive signal that can be replicated in other cases."

Earlier this month, Ismayilova was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which honors an outstanding contribution to the defense or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world.

“Humanity suffers when journalists are silenced,” she said in her acceptance speech, which was read by her mother, Elvira Ismayilova, at the ceremony in Helsinki on May 3. “This is why some people believe that the killing of journalists constitutes a crime against humanity. As you gather here tonight, I ask you not to laud my work or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice.”

Ismayilova has won other international honors before and after her imprisonment, including the PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the National Press Club's 2015 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, and the 2012 International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in Journalism award.

Amnesty International designated her as a "prisoner of conscience."

Azerbaijan is ranked "not free" (189th out of 199 countries and territories evaluated) in Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Press survey, and "very bad" (163rd out of 180 countries and territories evaluated) in Reporters Without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

The U.S.-based Freedom House says there are still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Ismayilova will turn 40 on May 27. Sport for Rights, an international coalition of activists, plans to hold rallies in 40 cities around the world on that date to call for Ismayilova’s full acquittal and for the release of Azerbaijan’s other political prisoners.

Speaking before the Supreme Court ruling in Baku, Ismayilova’s mother told RFE/RL she was optimistic her daughter would be released.

"Somehow, I am full of hope," Elvira Ismayilova said.

With reporting by RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, APA and AFP