This morning, California time, I was thrilled to awake to the news of the journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova’s release from prison in Azerbaijan. As she put it upon release, “my arrest was undertaken solely for political reasons”. Her release comes after a series of other releases of journalists and activists in Azerbaijan, though others remain detained. I very much welcome her release and urge authorities in Azerbaijan to release all others unlawfully detained.
One lesson of Khadija’s release may be that persistent, high-level, individualized pressure can have an impact in certain contexts, and we can hope that the individual releases in Azerbaijan lead to broader rethinking of policies that lead to such unjust detentions and pressure against the media and civil society. Public advocacy, legal and political interventions, country missions – all such efforts can be critical. As Khadija’s international lawyers highlighted, working toward release involved a wide range of human rights NGOs as well as engagement from the U.S. Government. From my vantage point, I know that Khadija’s London-based lawyers, Nani Jansen and Amal Clooney, pursued every possible avenue for their client with an extraordinary level of professionalism, energy and care.
I don’t know what ultimately led the Azerbaijani Supreme Court to release Khadija, but I do want to highlight two other voices that, in my estimation, were critical in advocating for her release. These voices belong to two leaders of European human rights mechanisms. The OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, was insistent upon Khadija’s release for some time. Her statement today hit exactly the right marks, and I fully share her view that (1) the remaining charges against her and other journalists and activists should be dropped and (2) others remaining in prison should be released immediately. Similarly, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, was unrelenting in calling for her release, including by intervening in one of her cases before the European Court of Human Rights. If anyone reading this has been to an OSCE or CoE meeting over the past couple years, you know that Dunja’s and Nils’ focus on cases like Khadija’s would not let Azerbaijan’s diplomats rest for one moment.
My colleagues and I in the UN human rights system also raised her case and others in Azerbaijan a number of times (see here, for instance). Earlier this year, I submitted an amicus filing in Khadija’s case against Azerbaijan in the European Court of Human Rights. The legal issues there and in Nils’ amicus remain live ones, and the fact of release does not erase the injustice of her harassment and detention – and the need for accountability and policy change.