Khadija Ismayilova gets the last laugh

Even after Khadija Ismayilova had spent several months in prison—an event human rights organizations call “retribution” for her investigative reporting on the regime in Azerbaijan—Ismayilova had not lost her sense of humor. In a letter from prison, published by The Washington Post in February, Ismayilova recounted how her cell had been searched and all of her notes confiscated. “I guess there are many devoted readers of mine at the penitentiary. They are taking turns reading my notes. That is why it is taking them such a long time to return what they have taken from me,” Ismayilova wrote.

As a contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ismayilova is known for her investigations into the corruption of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and has been the target of intimidation campaigns frequently used against the press. (On several occasions, intimate videos taken from inside her home have been used as threats against her.) At the time of her arrest on December 5, 2014, Ismayilova was first charged with inciting a former colleague to commit suicide, but several other charges have since been added. If she is found guilty of all charges, she could face up to 12 years behind bars.

In a campaign to free Ismayilova, PEN American Center is betting on humor, too. PEN has commissioned work by eleven acclaimed cartoonists, including several contributors to The New Yorker. The nonprofit first revealed the cartoons at its literary gala in May, where Ismayilova received a Freedom to Write award in absentia, and French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo received an award for “freedom of expression courage.”

The cartoons are now used to draw attention to PEN’s campaign, and to the fight for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

 

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS. A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of CJR under the headline, "The last laugh."