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Khadija Ismayilova is the winner of the 2017 Allard Prize for International Integrity for her work in exposing government corruption in Azerbaijan – efforts that the award’s namesake said are extraordinary.Aziz Karimov

When investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova asked an Azerbaijani court to let her travel to Canada for an award ceremony honouring her work, her request was denied.

She appealed, and the court responded by scheduling her hearing for the month after the ceremony.

And so, Ms. Ismayilova – who spent a year and a half in jail after she reported on corruption involving the President of Azerbaijan – was absent Thursday when she was named the winner of the 2017 Allard Prize for International Integrity during an event at the University of British Columbia. In a phone interview, Ms. Ismayilova said she never considered giving up her work when she was released from prison. She said the $100,000 Allard Prize will further her investigations.

"I think it's important to keep doing what we are doing. We shouldn't be scared," she said.

Intimate video of Ms. Ismayilova, shot by cameras that were secretly installed inside her home, was posted online in 2012. She described the incident as "the most awful thing that could be done to a woman in Azerbaijan.

"If I lived through that, I guess nothing else is scary for me."

Ms. Ismayilova was awarded the biennial prize over two other finalists, women's-rights lawyer Azza Soliman and a Brazilian anti-corruption task force.

Ms. Soliman co-founded the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance. The Allard Prize committee said she has dedicated her life to advocating for Egyptian girls and women, including fighting for their rights to divorce.

The Brazilian task force, which saw its work begin with a local money-laundering investigation known as Operation Car Wash, recovered billions of dollars in bribes and prosecuted some of the country's political and economic elites.

Ms. Soliman and the task force will each receive $10,000.

Glenn Greenwald, a journalist with the Intercept who is perhaps best known for his work involving the Edward Snowden documents, was the keynote speaker at Thursday's ceremony and said ahead of it that Ms. Ismayilova's work was very brave.

He said both she and Ms. Soliman in particular have been systematically persecuted but remained undeterred.

"They've just persisted and continued with their work in ways that are really remarkable and courageous," he said.

Ms. Ismayilova, 41, said the problems she has endured started in 2008. She was working for Radio Free Europe and covered the Azerbaijani presidential election, reporting on concerns about the vote, including apparent ballot stuffing. The incumbent President, Ilham Aliyev, was re-elected in a landslide.

Ms. Ismayilova said Radio Free Europe lost its FM licence in Azerbaijan after the election stories, although it could still be heard online and through satellite radio.

Two years later, Ms. Ismayilova reported on offshore assets held by the President and his family, including tens of millions of dollars in real estate holdings and billions in gold and silver at an Azerbaijan mine. She would also reveal the presidential family's interests in several other businesses, in sectors such as communications, banking, construction and transportation.

In March, 2012, when she was working on further stories about the President's family, Ms. Ismayilova received a package that contained photos taken inside her bedroom. A letter warned her to behave.

She published the threat and continued working on her stories. Video shot by the secretly installed cameras was posted online a week later and was all the more shocking in a conservative Muslim country, Ms. Ismayilova said.

"Nevertheless, they failed to convince me to give up on my profession," she said.

In December, 2014, Ms. Ismayilova was arrested and accused of inciting someone to attempt suicide. She said the government alleged she had harassed a colleague until he attempted to take his own life. Human Rights Watch at the time said Ms. Ismayilova's arrest was a devastating blow and part of the Azerbaijani government's concerted effort to silence dissenting voices.

Ms. Ismayilova said she was acquitted of the charge involving the attempted suicide, but convicted of additional charges involving financial crimes, including illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion. She said the entrepreneurship charge stemmed from the fact she made money as a freelance journalist – the government argued she was not properly accredited.

She said the tax-evasion charge was a result of Radio Free Europe's status as a non-profit. She said the government contended Radio Free Europe should have been paying taxes and Ms. Ismayilova was responsible because she was bureau chief in Azerbaijan.

Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 71/2 years in prison. She was released in May, 2016, on probation amid concerns from human-rights groups.

When asked about her time in prison, Ms. Ismayilova said she would not offer any complaints. She said many others have suffered – her family members have lost jobs and other journalists have also had their travel restricted.

"My responsibility now is to multiply this award and make others feel the benefit of it," she said.

The Allard Prize is named for Peter Allard, a lawyer and businessman who donated nearly $12-million to the University of British Columbia in 2011. The university's law school is also named in his honour.

In a statement, Mr. Allard said Ms. Ismayilova's efforts to combat corruption in Azerbaijan have been extraordinary.

"Demonstrating exemplary leadership and courage, she has made considerable personal sacrifices – and accepted risks to her own safety and that of her family and friends – to uphold transparency, accountability and the Rule of Law," he wrote.

Ms. Ismayilova was part of a team that recently published an extensive report through the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. It examined money laundering in Azerbaijan.

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The Canadian Press

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