Leyla Yunus: “They’re planning to wipe us out”

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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.”

This letter was originally published at Meydan.tv

Azerbaijan: Prosecutors seeking long sentences for Leyla and Arif Yunus

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Prosecutors in the case against Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus have asked the court to sentence the couple to 11 and 9 years respectively, Radio Free Europe reported. It is the latest in a series of moves by the government of Azerbaijan to silence those who have been calling for more freedom and democracy in the country.

The couple face spurious charges of treason, fraud and forgery.

“The world must not turn a blind eye to the ongoing persecution of civil society activists and investigative journalists at the hands of President Ilham Aliyev’s government. The international community must pressure the government to end its attack on civil society and respect international human rights standards,” Melody Patry, senior advocacy officer at Index on Censorship said.


Azerbaijan: Silencing human rights

Ongoing coverage of the crackdown on civil society by the government of President Ilham Aliyev

In her role as director of the Peace and Democracy Institute, Leyla Yunus sought to build bridges with Armenian human rights organisation in an attempt to defuse tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Her husband Arif is a historian and researcher who focused on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia.

The Yunus’ trial began on 27 July 2015, nearly a year after they were taken into custody days apart from each other. The couple are set to return to court on 10 August. Today marks a year and a day since the arrest of Arif Yunus on 5 August 2014. Leyla Yunus was arrested on 30 July 2014.

Earlier this week, an appeals court confirmed the six year and three month sentence that was slapped on pro-democracy activist Rasul Jafarov in April 2015.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who exposed corruption associated with the family of Ilham Aliyev, faces a continuation of her trial on 7 Aug. Journalists and observers were barred from the last court session on 24 July. Ismayilova won the US National Press Club‘s highest award on 29 July.

This article was posted on 6 August 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

Anniversary of human rights defender’s arrest marks year of unprecedented repression in Azerbaijan

Leyla Yunus (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

Leyla Yunus was arrested on 30 July 2014. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

A year after the Azerbaijani government launched an unprecedented crackdown on human rights, the situation in the country continues to deteriorate.

One year ago, on 30 July 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 2 August 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. On 5 August 2014, Leyla Yunus’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and activist in his own right, was arrested, followed by human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev on 8 August 2014, on similar charges.

Also on 8 August 2014, authorities searched and closed the office of Azerbaijan’s leading press freedom organisation, 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, 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.


Azerbaijan: Silencing human rights

Ongoing coverage of the crackdown on civil society by the government of President Ilham Aliyev

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, the 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”, CPJ 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 23 July, 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. The jailed Azerbaijani rights defenders are facing show trials marred by irregularity and due process violations, carried out by a judiciary that completely lacks independence. Although the charges against these rights defenders are spurious and politically motivated, they have no hope of fair and impartial trials.

On 15 July, a preparatory hearing was held in the case of Leyla and Arif Yunus, with the substantive portion starting on 27 July. 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 21 July, the Baku Court of Appeals upheld the 22 April decision of the Court of Grave Crimes in the case of 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 24 July, a preparatory hearing took place in the case of award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, jailed since December 2014 on charges of inciting someone to attempt suicide, with more serious charges later added of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. 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 31 July, Rasul Jafarov will appeal the 16 April decision of the Court of Grave Crimes, sentencing him to 6.5 years in jail. He is also prohibited 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 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.

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.

Supporting organisations:



Committee to Protect Journalists

Index on Censorship

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

International Media Support

Pen American Centre

People in Need


Solidarity with Belarus Information Office

World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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 Contact.az, 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 indexoncensorship.org