Azerbaijan: Prosecutors seeking long sentences for Leyla and Arif Yunus

[smartslider2 slider=”35″]

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

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

Rebecca Vincent: Britain’s next prime minister must use European Games to stand up for human rights in Azerbaijan

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

For the first time since the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the oil-rich, rights-poor nation of Azerbaijan is drawing widespread international attention. This June, the country is poised to host the inaugural European Games, which will bring an estimated 6,000 athletes from 50 countries to the capital city of Baku to compete in 20 sports.

Ahead of the games, the Azerbaijani regime has spent a great deal of time and money to promote a positive image abroad. At home, however, it is engaged in a brutal human rights crackdown. This has particularly intensified over the past year, as the authorities have worked aggressively to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.

Dozens of democracy activists are now in prison, including celebrated investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova who was given this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, and Leyla Yunus, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders. They, and many others, have been jailed on spurious charges, with some facing prison sentences of up to 12 years. Meanwhile, press freedom campaigner Emin Huseynov is trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku, facing arrest if he leaves. These individuals have been targeted for their work defending the rights of others and telling the truth about the situation in their country.

So far, the European Olympic Committees has been happy to look the other way, stating that was “not the EOC’s place to challenge or pass judgment on the legal or political processes of a sovereign nation”. Likewise, the event sponsors do not seem bothered: BP stated that “seeking to influence the policies of sovereign governments” was not part of its role. The Sport for Rights campaign hopes, however, that the next prime minister will think twice.

The Sport for Rights campaign's take on Baku European Games mascots Jeyran and Nar. (Image: Sport for Rights)

The Sport for Rights campaign’s take on Baku European Games mascots Jeyran and Nar. (Image: Sport for Rights)

As members of the campaign, Article 19, Index on Censorship, and Platform have written to the leaders of the UK’s Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green parties on the eve of the general election. The campaign urged them to make statements condemning the on-going attacks on human rights and calling for the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Sport for Rights also called on the party leaders to make their participation in the opening ceremony of the games contingent upon the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders. This is not a call for a boycott of the games by athletes or the public, but a request for the next prime minister not to miss a key opportunity to take an important stand.

In the face of growing repression in Azerbaijan, the response from the British government has so far been weak and sporadic. Statements are occasionally made; the most recent expressed that the UK was “dismayed” by the sentencing of human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, but stopped short of calling for his release, as did the previous statement conveying that the UK was “deeply troubled” by the sentencing of human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. But beyond statements, little else has been done — at least in the public eye.

For a country so intent on promoting its image as a modern, glamorous, international player, key political figures taking a public stand on human rights issues would have a real chance of impacting positive, democratic change. The European Games presents a timely opportunity for the next prime minister to do just that, sending the clear signal that human rights are important in the bilateral relationship.

Conversely, attendance by the prime minister at the opening ceremony of the games in the current climate, without securing the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders, would only serve to effectively endorse an increasingly authoritarian regime. In helping to whitewash Azerbaijan’s ever-worsening image, the UK would only end up tarnishing its own.

This article was posted on 6 May 2015 at

Azerbaijan sentences human rights lawyer to prison

Intigam Aliyev

Intigam Aliyev

The sentencing of Intigam Aliyev, a respected human rights attorney, to seven and a half years in prison is yet another example of Azerbaijan’s rigged judicial system and the continued stifling of civil society.

“Arrests may take away our freedom, but not the desire to be free. Our arrest is a continuation of our struggle”, Aliyev told the court according to Contact AZ.

Aliyev has been sentenced on charges of tax evasion, illegal business and abuse of authority. These charges are spurious. Aliyev has been imprisoned because he insisted his government respect the rule of law, human rights and the international commitments Azerbaijan is a signatory to.

“Index condemns this latest sentence from Azerbaijan – a country that forms part of the Council of Europe, yet upholds precious few of the human rights it has pledged to protect as part of that grouping,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “As Azerbaijan gets ready to welcome the rest of Europe to the first European Games in June, it is imperative that the rest of the world speaks out against the country’s brazen human rights abuses, and joins us in calling for the immediate release of Aliyev and his colleagues.”

Last week, Aliyev’s civil society colleague Rasul Jafarov was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

Aliyev, chairman of the Legal Education Society, was arrested on 8 August 2014 after being summoned to the Serious Crimes Investigation Department of the General Prosecutor for questioning. He was subsequently charged with tax evasion, illegal enterprise and abuse of power, sent to a pre-trial detention centre, and faced trial. During his time in pre-trial detention, he began to suffer from severe health problems such as chronic headaches and nerve pain. According to the Human Rights House Foundation, he has been denied necessary medical treatment.

Aliyev, who is often referred to as “müəllim” or “teacher”, an honourable title denoting the highest respect in Azerbaijan is one the foremost lawyers litigating cases of human rights violations in Azerbaijan at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Over the last 20 years, he has made over 200 applications to the Court and won more than 40 cases related to freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right to fair trial, the right to liberty and security and the right to free elections. Prior to Intigam Aliyev’s arrest, the ECtHR communicated to the Azerbaijani government more than 20 cases representing more than 40 applicants, regarding violations by the Azerbaijani state related to parliamentary elections in 2010. The offices of the Legal Education Society were raided and materials related to all the cases were seized, preventing the applicants from continuing with the litigation themselves.

Index on Censorship joined Human Rights House Network in sending a letter to Azerbaijan’s president.