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

Twitter users hijack #HelloBaku to shine spotlight on Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses

From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and

From top left: Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev and Anar Mammadli – some of the government critics jailed on trumped up charges in Azerbaijan

Social media users have hijacked the hashtag #HelloBaku to draw attention to human rights and free speech violations in Azerbaijan ahead of this summer’s inaugural European Games in the capital Baku.

Baku 2015 organisers launched the hashtag contest on 4 March 2015, as part of a promotional push ahead of the games, which start on 12 June. Social media users were invited to enter by posting a photo or video of themselves holding a sign with #HelloBaku written on it. The winner, set to be announced this week, will be awarded two tickets to the opening ceremony, as well as a night at a luxury hotel and flights.

But the campaign backfired, as a number of social media users instead used #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. According to the latest estimates, there are over 100 political prisoners in the country. Since last summer, authorities have been engaged in an unprecedented onslaught against its most prominent critics, jailing investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and others on trumped up charges. On 9 April, prosecutors asked for a 9-year sentence for Jafarov, who stands accused of tax evasion and malpractice, among other things.

On 30 March, the same day the contest closed, Human Rights Watch researcher Giorgi Gogia, who was set to attend the trial hearing of Aliyev and Jafarov, was blocked from entering Azerbaijan. Traveling from his native Georgia, Gogia does not require a visa to go to Azerbaijan. Despite this, his passport was taken away and he was held at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku for 31 hours without explanation, before being sent back to Tbilisi.

Azerbaijan’s authorities, led by President Ilham Aliyvev, have been accused by human rights groups of running an expensive international PR operation to whitewash rights violations, and present the country as a “modern, outward looking state“. According to the Baku European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC), the games will “showcase Azerbaijan as a vibrant and modern European nation of great achievement”.

London-based marketing firm 1000heads, whose clients include Yahoo, Procter & Gamble and Lego, worked with Baku 2015 organisers on #HelloBaku. Index contacted 1000heads to ask whether they were aware of criticisms against Azerbaijan’s human rights record before taking on the job, and their response to the hijacking of the hashtag.

“We were working with BEGOC, the Baku European Games Operation Committee, which is responsible for delivering the event for athletes from the 49 National Olympic Committees of Europe. We are no longer involved,” 1000heads CEO Mike Rowe said in an email.

This article was posted on 8 April 2015 at

Azerbaijan: Journalist sentenced to five years for “aggravated hooliganism”


Azerbaijani journalist Seymur Hezi, who works for Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award-winning newspaper Azadliq, has been sentenced to five years imprisonment for “aggravated hooliganism”, according to Azadlıq Radiosu.

“Index condemns the sentencing of Azerbaijani journalist Seymur Hezi, who was arrested last year on trumped up charges of disorderly conduct. The ‘crime’ for which he is actually being punished is journalism and his attempts to tell the truth about a brutal authoritarian regime that systematically stifles dissent,” Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg said.

Hezi’s sentencing is another sign of the continuing clampdown by Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government on civil society. Earlier this week, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova‘s pre-trial detention period was extended by a Baku court; other prominent human rights defenders who have been arrested in recent months include: Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mammadli and Intigam Aliyev.

Hezi was arrested on August 29 2014 after an altercation in which the journalist said he was protecting himself from a physical assault and harassment, according to his lawyers.

Azadlıq Radiosu reported that Hezi’s lawyers and family are certain the arrest and the sentence are politically motivated and that Hezi is innocent.
His father, Meshqul Heziyev told Azadlıq Radiosu, “the hearing was biased and turned down all of the motions. At the end it simply carried out a politically motivated order”.

“Seymur Hezi’s arrest is a serious blow against our newspaper. He is one of the brightest Azerbaijani analysts and journalists, and a true intellectual,” Rahim Haciyev, acting editor of Azadliq newspaper, told Index at the time of Hezi’s arrest.

Haciyev said he is sure Hezi’s arrest is the result of a planned provocation and the journalist is prosecuted for publishing critical articles on the authorities in the newspaper, as well as in his online TV program “Azerbaijani Hour”, which he scripts and hosts.

In March 2011, Hezi was abducted and tortured by unidentified men. He was warned to keep quiet.

Seymur Hezi is also host of news programme “Azerbaijan Hour” and is a member of the opposition Popular Front Party.

This article was published on 29 January 2015 at

Azerbaijan: Protesters demand end to repression


Thousands of Azerbaijanis took to the street on Sunday, calling for the resignation of President Ilham Aliyev, the release of political prisoners and an end to human rights abuses in the country. The protest comes during an ongoing and wide reaching crackdown on regime critics.



On Saturday, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was placed under a travel ban. The award-winning reporter has covered corruption allegedly connected to Aliyev, and has been targeted by government supporters in the past. She is currently facing criminal charges of libel and document forgery, which she denies and vows to fight.

Last week, Index reported journalist Arzu Geybulla being threatened on social media and accused of treason after being interviewed by Azerbaijani news site

These cases follow the jailing of several prominent and critical voices within Azerbaijan’s civil society. Human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif were detained in July, followed by fellow rights activist Rasul Jafarov, lawyer Intigam Aliyev and journalist Seymur Hezi.



The European Parliament recently called on Azerbaijan — currently chairing the Council of Europe — to release several prominent political prisoners and proceed with reforming the country’s human rights policies. Before being arrested, Jafarov had worked on putting together a detailed list of the country’s political prisoners, with the latest figure coming to 98.


The protest, which also called for closer ties to the European Union, was approved by authorities, but took place in a remote part of Baku.

All photos by Ramin Deko

This article was posted on 10 October 2014 at