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Leyla Yunus: One year of unprecedented repression in Azerbaijan

An activist holds a placard demanding the release of Leyla Yunus, during a protest in London, U.K., 12 June 2015
An activist holds a placard demanding the release of Leyla Yunus, during a protest in London, U.K., 12 June 2015

See Li/Demotix

This statement was originally published on pen.org on 30 July 2015.

A year after the Azerbaijani government launched an unprecedented crackdown on human rights, the situation in the country continues to deteriorate. The Sport for Rights Coalition calls on the international community to immediately and publicly condemn the government of Azerbaijan's actions and take concrete steps to support Azerbaijani civil society.

One year ago, on July 30, 2014, Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus was arrested and charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. Yunus, the Director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, was a tireless rights advocate, likely targeted for her work on behalf of Azerbaijan's many political prisoners and her call for a boycott of the inaugural European Games, which took place in Baku in June 2015.

Yunus's arrest marked the start of a period of unprecedented repression in Azerbaijan. The human rights situation in the country has now reached alarming lows as the authorities aggressively pursue the very individuals who worked to defend those already targeted for expressing critical opinions.

On August 2, 2014, human rights defender and founder of the Sport for Rights campaign Rasul Jafarov was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. As Chairman of the Human Rights Club and founder of the Sing for Democracy, Art for Democracy, and Sport for Rights campaigns, Jafarov worked to defend the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Just prior to his arrest in August 2014, he had published information on more than 100 cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

On August 5, 2014, Leyla Yunus's husband Arif Yunus, a historian and activist in his own right, was arrested, followed by the arrest of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev on August 8, 2014, on similar charges.

Also on August 8, authorities searched and closed the office of Azerbaijan's leading press freedom organization, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), as part of a wider criminal investigation into a large group of NGOs working on issues related to democracy and human rights. IRFS Chairman Emin Huseynov sought refuge in the Swiss Embassy in Baku, where he remained for 10 months, fearing arrest. On 12 June, Huseynov flew out of Azerbaijan on the plane of Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who attended the opening ceremony of the European Games in Baku.

For many years now, the Azerbaijani authorities have employed a range of tactics to silence critical voices, from physical attacks and torture to blackmail and imprisonment. In Huseynov's case, however, they introduced an outrageous new tactic. In an unprecedented step, and in violation of international and Azerbaijani law, the government stripped Huseynov of his Azerbaijani citizenship. He has become a stateless person, left with no choice but to apply for asylum in Switzerland.

Many other human rights defenders and journalists have fled Azerbaijan out of fear for their safety. The Sport for Rights coalition fears that without widespread international condemnation, this same tactic could be applied to others, with the nationality of “unwelcome” activists renounced.

“The international community must keep its focus on Azerbaijan, as the worst for the bravest, independent-minded individuals—both the ones remaining on the ground and those forced into exile—may be yet to come,” Committee to Protect Journalists Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The Azerbaijani regime is known for punishing its critics in the aftermath of the global mega events it has hosted, and the illegal, retaliatory renouncing of Emin Huseynov's citizenship is an illustration of that. So is the harassment of the few remaining independent journalists in the country and the intimidation of the families of those pushed into exile”.

In a renewed assault against civil society, the Azerbaijani authorities have increasingly been targeting the family members of exiled activists. Ganimat Zahid, the editor-in-chief of Azadliq newspaper who has been in political exile since being forced to flee Azerbaijan in 2011, has seen the persecution of family members who remain in the country. His cousin and two nephews were arrested on charges varying from “refusing to comply with police instructions” to drug possession. Most recently, on July 23, the authorities arrested the brother-in-law of Emin Milli—the director of Meydan TV and a whistleblower in political exile—on similar drug charges. He faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted.

“This is a clear and worrying escalation of the Azerbaijani authorities' crackdown on free expression,” said ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes. “When those reporting the truth do not bend to intimidation, the authorities start detaining their family members and loved ones as a way to silence criticism entirely. This is a completely unacceptable attack on human rights in general, and specifically on free speech.”

Now, as international media attention has shifted from the country following the European Games, the broader human rights crackdown continues.

Jailed Azerbaijani rights defenders are facing show trials marred by irregularity and due process violations carried out by a judiciary that completely lacks independence. As the charges against these rights defenders are spurious and politically motivated, they have no hope of fair and impartial trials.

On July 15, a preparatory hearing was held in the case of Leyla and Arif Yunus, with the substantive portion starting on July 27. After nearly a year of pre-trial detention, Leyla Yunus appeared ill and fatigued, and was kept in an isolated glass cage during the hearing. It was also the first time she has seen her husband Arif after many months of separation in different detention facilities.

On July 21, the Baku Court of Appeals upheld the April 22 Court of Grave Crimes decision against award-winning human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, leaving him in jail to finish his 7.5-year sentence. Aliyev was one of the few lawyers in Azerbaijan willing to take on human rights cases. He has filed hundreds of cases with the European Court of Human Rights, and had more than a dozen cases pending hearing at the time of his arrest.

"Intiqam Aliyev, the 2012 laureate of People in Need's Homo Homini Award, is one of the bravest and most honest lawyers in the region, and has been punished solely for his human rights work. His continued imprisonment, following a sham trial, is a sad reminder that Azerbaijan's justice system is broken and completely dependent on the political will of the government," said Ivana Skalova, head of the East European Programme at the Prague-based NGO People in Need.

On July 24, a preparatory hearing took place in the case of award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, jailed since December 2014 on charges of inciting a colleague to attempt suicide. More serious charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power were later added. Ismayilova was one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan willing to cover risky topics such as corruption of the ruling elite.

“We condemn the ongoing imprisonment of Khadija, who has spent nearly eight months in detention as authorities attempt to suppress the most vibrant voices reporting from Azerbaijan,” said Karin Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Center. “The charges against her are clearly fabricated, and we urge the government to respect the right to freedom of expression and allow her and other independent journalists to do their jobs freely.”

On July 31, Rasul Jafarov will appeal the April 16 decision of the Court of Grave Crimes sentencing him to 6.5 years in jail and prohibiting him from holding any office for three years. During the first-instance trial, all of the prosecution's witnesses testified in his favour, and the prosecution failed to prove his guilt. After the verdict, Jafarov reiterated that the charges against him were fabricated and politically motivated.

As members of the Sport for Rights coalition, we urge the Azerbaijani authorities to cease this crackdown and take concrete steps to improve the human rights situation in the country. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of Leyla and Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev, and Khadija Ismayilova, along with the other jailed journalists and human rights defenders. We further express deep concern at the severe deterioration in health of Leyla and Arif Yunus, who require urgent medical attention and should be immediately released on humanitarian, if not political, grounds.

We also urge the international community to sustain attention to Azerbaijan in the coming months, as the few critical voices left in the country are at elevated risk in the aftermath of the European Games and in the run-up to the November parliamentary elections. Immediate and concrete action is needed to protect and support these individuals and to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its international human rights obligations.

PEN American Center
ARTICLE 19
Committee to Protect Journalists
Index on Censorship

89up
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
International Media Support
People in Need
Platform
Solidarity with Belarus Information Office
World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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