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Index on Censorship strongly condemns the sentencing of Leyla and Arif Yunus to 8.5 and 7 years in prison, respectively. The ongoing and capricious judicial harassment of Azerbaijan’s civil society by the government of President Ilham Aliyev has reached a new low.
Leyla Yunus, founder and director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, historian Arif Yunus, have been detained since summer 2014 when they were arrested on charges of treason and fraud.
Index calls on the international community to take concrete actions to pressure the government of Azerbaijan to respect freedom of expression and release all journalists and human rights activists in prison.
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The Sport for Rights coalition resolutely condemns the brutal murder of Azerbaijani journalist Rasim Aliyev, who died on 9 August in a Baku hospital, after he was severely beaten on 8 August by a group of people. Rasim Aliyev had reported receiving continuous threats and intimidation via social media networks for three weeks leading up to his death.
Azerbaijani authorities have launched an investigation into the attack and detained at least one individual so far. Officials are connecting the attack to a Facebook post from 3 August in which Rasim Aliyev had criticised a football player. The relatives of the football players are alleged to have been responsible for the beating.
However, prior to the Facebook post in question, Rasim Aliyev had already been receiving threatening messages connected to a series of photos he had posted online showing police brutality and social discontent, such as protesters carrying a banner reading “Resign”. Rasim Aliyev reported receiving a threat stating “You will be punished for these photos”. He publicised the threat on 25 July, and filed a complaint with the police, who failed to take action to protect Rasim Aliyev.
Rasim Aliyev was a board member and employee of Azerbaijan’s leading media freedom organisation, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), and was elected as the organisation’s chairman in October 2014. Rasim Aliyev had faced many forms of pressure in his work with IRFS, including being beaten by police in a 2013 incident that was captured in a widely circulated photograph.
Notably, the attack against Rasim Aliyev took place exactly one year from the date IRFS was forcibly closed by the Azerbaijani authorities and IRFS founder and chairman Emin Huseynov was forced into hiding to ensure his own safety, on 8 August 2014.
“We are deeply shocked and saddened by the murder of Rasim Aliyev”, said Index on Censorship’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. “The attack on Rasim takes place in a deteriorating environment for media professionals and civil society in Azerbaijan. Rasim was an independent journalist who kept working after his employer, IRFS, was sealed shut by the authorities. IRFS existed to provide support to journalists like Rasim, especially at a time when threats, intimidation and violence against journalists are commonplace in the country. We call on the authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the attack and bring the perpetrators to justice”.
Rasim Aliyev’s murder is the latest incident in a vicious cycle of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, there have been hundreds of attacks against journalists in the country, including the murder of Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov in 2005, and writer and journalist Rafig Tagi in 2011. Both murders remain unsolved, as do nearly all other cases of attacks against journalists. Another journalist, Tolishi Sedo newspaper editor-in-chief Novruzali Mammadov, died in 2009 while serving a 10-year prison sentence on politically motivated charges.
This attack takes place amidst a brutal human rights crackdown in the aftermath of the European Games and in the run-up to November’s parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. In recent weeks, another Azerbaijani journalist, Berlin-based Meydan TV Director Emin Milli, reported receiving a high-level threat, which was shortly followed by pressure against many of his relatives. Four Meydan TV employees were later prevented from leaving Azerbaijan.
“Further evidence of the on-going efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities to silence all forms of criticism and dissent can be found in the many violations taking place in the cases of human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus and journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who are currently standing trial on politically motivated charges”, said FIDH Honorary President Souhayr Belhassen and OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock, whose organisations work together within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. The prosecutor has requested staggeringly long prison sentences for the Yunus couple, despite the fact that both have serious and worsening health problems and should be immediately released on humanitarian, if not political grounds.
Sport for Rights calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into Rasim Aliyev’s murder, and to bring the perpetrators as well as the masterminds behind the crime to justice. The cycle of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan must stop, and those responsible must be prosecuted. Threats against journalists must be taken seriously, and the threatened journalists and their families must be afforded adequate protection. The coalition also calls for the authorities to take concrete steps to improve the broader human rights situation in the country, including the immediate and unconditional release of all jailed journalists and human rights defenders.
Sport for Rights further calls for the international community to maintain its attention on Azerbaijan now that media attention has shifted away from the country following the European Games. As Rasim Aliyev’s murder shows, critical voices are at greater risk now than ever before. The international community must act now to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights obligations and promote much-needed reforms in the country.
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights House Foundation
Index on Censorship
International Media Support
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
PEN American Center
Polish Green Network
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
The following letter was written by Leyla Yunus, director of the Peace and Democracy Institute, who is currently on trial on spurious charges. Her husband, Arif, a historian and researcher is also on trial. The letter was originally published at Meydan.tv.
They’re planning to wipe us out in agony. Why is that? So that our pain and our deaths become a lesson for all.
They didn’t give me an opportunity to speak in court, but I want my voice to be heard. Finally, I saw Arif. We haven’t seen each other, and I haven’t heard his voice for a year! He celebrated his 60th anniversary in a prison cell, and I’ll have to mark my 60th birthday in duress as well.
We were separated on the 37th anniversary of our wedding, and I already don’t believe that we can be together in this world… with our daughter and the whole family.
Azerbaijan: Silencing human rights
Ongoing coverage of the crackdown on civil society by the government of President Ilham Aliyev
We are both historians, and we are well aware that despotism is based on repressions. Back in the past, [Russian revolutionary Sergey] Stepniak-Kravchinsky wrote: “It’s worse than plague. Plague kills indiscriminately, while despotism chooses its victims from the cream of the nation. ”
Tofiq Yagublu, Anar, Ilgar, Intigam, Hilal, Seymour Ghazi, Khadija, Thale Bagirzade, Movsum Samedov, Yadigar Sadigov, Rasul Jafarov, Rashadat and others from NIDA. More than a hundred of the brightest and cleanest…
In the 80s Arif, and I worked in samizdat newspaper Express-Chronicle published illegally. Then, in 1986 our colleague Anatoly Marchenko died in the Chistopol prison. For me, it was a shock. I am well aware of the deaths in Stalin’s camps, since three brothers of my grandfather passed away there. But in 1986….
At that time, I realized that the terror continued in the USSR, and we had to be ready for it, but I could not assume that the independent Azerbaijan would follow the same path.
As a human rights activist with nearly 30 years of experience, I knew about torture in Azerbaijan. Still, it was hard when I was attacked in the first months of my detention, when on September 23, 2014, Major Yagubov, a young and strong man, started beating me. As a result of these beatings, I lost the ability to see normally with my left eye.
On December 11, 2014, I was dragged by my feet into a solitary confinement without explaining a reason… I heard from Arif that he had also been assaulted during the first days of his arrest…
Arif suffers from stage 3 arterial hypertension. This means strokes, paralysis, hemorrhage, and unpredictable blood pressure hikes. Now he has a tumor on his head. He has been held in a solitary confinement for a year, and he suffers from a persistent pain. It is well-known that I suffer from diabetes and liver decomposition. The EU sent an expensive medicine, but we all understand that in detention this medicine will not be able to help me…
They’re planning to wipe us out in agony. Why is that? So that our agony and our deaths become a lesson for all. If they do not shy away from destroying a well-known family, then others are easy to destroy too. Fear must live in the hearts of citizens. Fear and hopelessness. I have no illusions about this tribunal, as there was no so-called investigation.
Which articles of the law to use in order to fake accusations, make up a crime and sentence a defendant – these orders come to prosecutors and judges from the top. Preparing our indictment, prosecutors got so carried away with the falsification that even a well-known, documented fact of an unlawful destruction of our house on Shamsi Badalbeyli Street 38 was presented as a peaceful move to another apartment. Even the Administrative, Economic, Appeals and Supreme Courts acknowledged the destruction of our house. However, this was clearly an unlawful destruction of property with all assets (archives, computers) on August 11, 2011.
This obvious lie is a clear evidence of how falsified the entire investigation is. Neither the investigators nor the prosecutor fear that their lies can be refuted…
Arif is accused of transferring money from one of his accounts to another. I have witnessed so many trials against political prisoners, given a well-deserved “striped robe” to so many judges, which is why I will definitely not participate in this tribunal. But I’ll just sit with Arif and hold his hand. We both know that this is our last date. When it all breaks down, I will not be there with him … But we are both historians and we know: “wayfarer will seek his way to Lacedaemon so that we … remain faithful to the law.” As my Polish teacher taught me: “For your freedom and ours.”
Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova declared her innocence at a pre-trial hearing, calling the charges against her poltically motivated.
Ismayilova, who has reported on corruption allegations involving the family of President Ilham Aliyev, is accused of embezzlement, tax evasion and abuse of power. Detained since December 2014, Ismayilova was originally charged with “incitement to suicide”, though that charge was later dropped.
The court barred members of the public, journalists, political figures and foreign diplomats, who had come to observe the proceedings, from entering the courtroom, Contact.az and Radio Free Europe reported.
Ismayilova’s trial was set to begin on 7 August.
“The decision to bar access to the public on the first day of Khadija’s trial underscores the capricious manner in which the government of President Ilham Aliyev is ruling Azerbaijan. Her’s is not the first spurious case aimed squarely at stifling critical voices in civil society. It’s vital that court officials hold the trial in a transparent manner”, Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship said.
In the past year major figures in Azerbaijan’s civil society have been silenced through pre-trial detentions and multi-year prison sentences.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the pre-trial hearing was part of the trial.
• Married political prisoners kept apart for 11 months, reunited in court
• Lawyers call for the release of Intigam Aliyev
• Azerbaijan: Silencing human rights
This article was posted on 24 July 2015 at indexoncensorship.org