After spending 537 days in jail, persecuted unjustly in Azerbaijan for exposing corruption in the family of its president, journalist Khadija Ismayilova stepped into the sunshine and made an astonishing declaration. “I’m going to continue my investigations,” she said. “I’m so eager to start working on the Panama Papers. It’s the job I like.”
In so doing, Ismayilova reaffirms the resilience and power of liberty. Authoritarian rulers can deny their people freedom, but they never really take it away. Television and radio stations can go silent, newspapers can be shuttered, the Internet switched off, journalists imprisoned and fear loosed on the streets, but what can’t be extinguished is the courage and determination of one individual. Ismayilova is a beacon of hope to all who share this conviction.
After her release, Ismayilova said that the Azerbaijani government had clearly hoped to frighten reporters and others from investigating high-level corruption and cronyism, but “this didn’t happen.” Instead of fewer reports, there were more. The Panama Papers, a trove of thousands of documents on hidden financial dealings revealed by a coalition of journalists and activists, confirmed the truth of her earlier published account of offshore companies used by the family of President Ilham Aliyev to hold their interest in a gold mine.
From the start, Ismayilova understood the stakes and never wavered. “I am a journalist and my only ‘crime’ was to investigate high-level corruption within the government and family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev,” she wrote to us in March, after Aliyev released some other political prisoners but not her. “I am free even now, in jail, and my freedom is not for sale.”
She demanded that President Barack Obama ask Aliyev “to stop muzzling the independent media and civil society. Ask him to explain the billions of petrodollars wasted on white-elephant projects for the benefit of a few. Ask him when he is going to hold free and fair elections. Ask him when he is going to let all the political prisoners go free. Ask him when fundamental freedoms can become a right, in practice — not a gift that he can give or take away. I asked these questions, and I ended up in jail. These are important questions. They must not go unanswered.”
Now Ismayilova is out, and the answers are still needed. While Azerbaijan released her, and some others, the regime remains intolerant of dissent and criticism. Ismayilova called on Azerbaijan to allow U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where she worked, to reopen its bureau in Baku, which was raided and shuttered by the Azeri authorities in December 2014.
Why Aliyev is releasing some prisoners now is not clear, but international pressure may have played a role. Ismayilova observed correctly that such pressure is most effective when brought to bear in the light of day. Tyrants don’t like sunshine. “The fight for human rights must be open and transparent,” she said. “We should not talk about it behind closed doors.”