Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova can't leave her country to pick up the Right Livelihood Award she won in Stockholm. As Azerbaijan's president visits Brussels, calls to lift the ban are growing.
Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, called in a statement on Friday for the travel ban to be lifted ahead of the 2017 award presentation on December 1 at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.
"We call on all Member States of the Council of Europe to issue public statements calling for Khadija Ismayilova's travel ban to be withdrawn, her bank account to be unfrozen and for her and her fellow Azerbaijani journalists to be allowed to work unhindered in an environment free from intimidation," von Uexkull said in a statement.
"Ismayilova is one of the most courageous and skilled investigative journalists of her generation," he added.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is attending the EU's Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on Friday.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and 36 other human rights NGOs on Thursday released an open letter calling on EU leaders to press Azerbaijan to end its recent crackdown on journalists and opposition groups.
Aliyev has ruled the oil-rich South Caucasus country since shortly before his father's death in 2003.
Azerbaijan is a small but strategically important country with a population of 10 million and a large supply of oil and gas. It is estimated that about one third of the gas used by the EU would come from Russia if not for Azerbaijan's supplies.
A fearless reporter
Ismayilova – who has uncovered a wide range of corrupt business deals involving family members of Aliyev – spent 18 months in prison before her release in May 2016 after an international campaign led to her sentence being reduced.
The Ministry of Justice then imposed a five-year travel ban and her attempts to lift it have been rejected by local courts four times, most recently on October 17.
She also had her bank account frozen on November 14 and has been subjected to smear campaigns and harassment.
Some 13 Azerbaijani journalists are currently in jail and an additional 15 have been banned from leaving Azerbaijan.
Corruption: the root of all evil
Ismayilova has provided strong evidence of corruption at the highest levels of Azerbaijan's government and at multinational companies.
"I am not the only journalist in Azerbaijan who is facing [a] travel ban and other forms of harassment simply because I dare to criticize the government when they steal people's money," Ismayilova said in a statement.
"The root of this evil is corruption and it knows no borders - it intrudes into the heart of Europe," she said, calling for sanctions against corrupt politicians and human rights abusers in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is 123rd equal on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index and 162nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2017 World Freedom Index.
In September, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and several European and US news organizations revealed a story of an Azerbaijani "laundromat" that had allegedly "cleaned” €2.5 billion euros (almost $3 billion) over a two-year period using UK-registered shell companies and a European bank.
Recent international corruption investigations have also found that Aliyev's family makes frequent use of offshore companies to hide its wealth.
Some of the money has allegedly been used to influence businesspeople and influential political figures particularly in the Council of Europe. Most of the money went to other shell companies registered in the UK as well as entities in the UAE and Turkey.
Established in 1980, the Right Livelihood Award honors and supports people and organizations "offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems," the organization said in a statement. It is widely known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize."