Azerbaijan: Married political prisoners kept apart for 11 months, reunited in court

It should have been a happy day for Leyla and Arif Yunus. On 15 July, the couple — together for 37 years — saw each other for the first time in 11 months. The circumstances of their reunion, however, put a damper on what would otherwise have been a joyous occasion: it took place inside a glass cage, in a cramped courtroom in Baku, Azerbaijan. The human rights activists are on trial, on charges widely recognised to be politically motivated.

Initially scheduled for 13 July, but pushed back for unknown reasons, the Yunus’s pre-trial hearing came almost a year after they were first detained within days of each other in July and August of 2014. Leyla, director of the Peace and Democracy Institute, and Arif, a historian and researcher, have since been accused of an array of crimes, ranging from tax evasion and illegal business activities, to treason.

In the courtroom some 30 places were allocated to members of the public, who were stripped of their phones at the start of proceedings. Representatives from the German and EU embassies, as well as local journalists and NGOs were in attendance, according to Kati Piri, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who travelled to Baku for the trial. She estimated that more than half of the the crowd that had shown up, including other embassy delegations, did not manage to get into the room.

Piri told Index on Censorship that she was there to show support and solidarity for the couple, and that the European Parliament and the international community had not forgotten them and will continue to exert pressure.

“Even though the spotlight is no longer on Baku for the games, it will continue to be on when it comes to human right abuses,” she said, referring to the inaugural European Games, hosted with much fanfare by the Azerbaijani capital just weeks ago.

Proceedings lasted some 2.5 hours, and according to reports from inside the court, both Leyla and Arif looked pale and thinner. Leyla’s struggles with diabetes and Hepatitis C in prison have been well documented, but during the hearing she expressed worry in particular about her husband. Piri said Arif looked “much less strong and vivid than Leyla”. Their daughter Dinara told media in June that both her parents’ health has deteriorated since their arrest.

The car transporting Leyla and Arif Yunus (Photo: Kati Piri)

The van transporting Leyla and Arif Yunus (Photo: Kati Piri)

An appeal to the judges to allow Leyla to serve house arrest instead of imprisonment, was denied — as was every other motion filed by the defence, including a call for the case to be dropped altogether and a request that the couple be allowed to sit with their attorneys instead of the in the glass cages.

But Piri said Leyla seemed mentally very strong: “Mentally, they haven’t been able to break her.” Leyla took the opportunity, during a break in proceedings, to address the people in attendance, and according to, she refused to stay silent even when the judge ignored her request to speak. “You are depriving me of the right to speak… I know that it is a false trial, but you have to give me an opportunity to speak…” she reportedly said.

The arrest of the couple in July and August 2014, was the first move in a crackdown by the regime of President Ilham Aliyvev, which has seen some of Azerbaijan’s most celebrated critical and independent voices arrested and sentenced on spurious, and frequently suspiciously similar charges, often relating to white-collar crime. Over the past few months, pro-democracy campaigner Rasul Jafarov has been handed down a 6.5 year sentence, while human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and journalist Seymur Hezi have been jailed for 7.5 and five years respectively. Award-winning investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova is due in court on 22 July.

Leyla and Arif Yunus’s next hearing is scheduled for 27 July. While Piri remains hopeful of a positive outcome for the couple, she is afraid “it will not depend on the judges, but on politicians what will happen in this case”.

This article was posted on 15 July 2015 at

Ten times the Azerbaijani president told us how much he loves press freedom

Demotix - PanARMENIAN Photo

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (Photo: Demotix)

Critical Azerbaijani journalists may have been jailed, beaten, killed, and forced into hiding and exile. Foreign journalists may have been banned from entering the country for the inaugural European Games in the capital Baku. But don’t worry: Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev sure loves press freedom — at least according to his tweets.

1) HUNDREDS, you hear!

2) For those who can get in for the European Games, anyway.

3) All of the freedoms are available.

4) No, seriously, ALL OF THEM.

5) I really can’t stress this enough.

6) Free media = democracy. Azerbaijan definitely has both of those things. Definitely.

7) And the best way to forge active relationships is by banning them from entering the country. Obviously.

8) Again, activity is key.

9) Strengthening, targeting. Potato, potato.

10) …to jail.

This article was posted on 11 June, 2015 at

12 June: #RealBaku2015: Free political prisoners in Azerbaijan

Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)

Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)

Join Index on Censorship, Sport for Rights, Amnesty International UK, Article 19 and Platform for a demonstration in London calling for an end to the human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan, and the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders. This will be part of a series of parallel protests across Europe to mark the opening ceremony of the inaugural European Games. The games will be hosted in Baku, Azerbaijan from 12-28 June.

The demonstration will take place from 10 to 11 am in front of the Azerbaijani Embassy at 4 Kensington Court, London, W8 5DL. Some participants will be coming from an earlier protest, organised by Platform, in front of BP, a sponsor of the European Games.

For more information on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the European Games, check out Sport for Rights’ Facebook page and Twitter feed.

When: Friday 12 June, 10-11 am
Where: Embassy of Azerbaijan, London (map)

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Azerbaijan: Seven things you need to know ahead of the Baku European Games

Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)

Editorial cartoon on the Baku European Games From Meydan TV (Image: Meydan TV)

In six weeks, the inaugural European Olympic Committee (EOC)-backed European Games will start in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Meanwhile, concerns about the human rights situation in the country are mounting. The latest chapter in the ongoing crackdown on government critics saw pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev sentenced to 6.5 and 7.5 years in prison, respectively.

Against this backdrop, Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Article 19 on 28 April hosted Give Human Rights a Sporting Chance in Azerbaijan at the Frontline Club in London. The event addressed the question of how journalists can effectively cover the games given the full scope of social and political issues in Azerbaijan.

From left: Emin Milli, Rebecca Vincent and Georgi Gogia speaking at (Photo: Index on Censorship)

From left: Emin Milli, Rebecca Vincent and Giorgi Gogia speaking speaking on the crackdown on government critics in Azerbaijan ahead of this summer’s Baku European Games (Photo: Index on Censorship)

On the panel were Emin Milli, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, now director of Meydan TV; Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign; and Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Azerbaijan who was recently denied entry into the country. These were some of their key points:

1) Azerbaijan’s human rights community has been all but wiped out over the past year

2) In light of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, the EOC is not free of responsibility…

3) …and neither are European states

4) The Azerbaijani government has invested in an international PR campaign — and it’s working

5) The games are not popular among ordinary Azerbaijanis

6) Sports journalists should report on more than just sports during the games

7) Despite Azerbaijan’s current climate, human rights activism remains important and worthwhile

This article was posted on 29 April 2015 at