(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities are harassing and engaging in oppressive tactics against a prominent human rights defender. The Azerbaijani government should end the harassment against rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif.
Azerbaijan’s international partners, in particular fellow members of the Council of Europe, should make clear that continued harassment of human rights defenders, and the Yunuses in particular, will affect their relationships with Azerbaijan’s government.
“Leyla and Arif Yunus are among many people the Azerbaijani authorities find ‘inconvenient,’” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No government should be allowed to get away with targeting human rights defenders while it’s seeking to boost its international prestige.”
On April 28, 2014, Baku airport police prevented the couple from leaving the country, confiscated their passports, and subjected them to a 24-hour ordeal that led to Arif Yunus’s hospitalization. The prosecutor’s office subsequently designated them as witnesses in a treason investigation against Azerbaijani journalist and civic activist Rauf Mirgadirov, who was deported from Turkey on April 19 and then arrested in Baku.
The authorities should immediately return the Yunuses’ passports and stop the arbitrary interference with their freedom of movement and right to leave their country, Human Rights Watch said. There is no provision in Azerbaijani law to bar people who are designated witnesses in a criminal investigation from leaving the country.
President Francois Hollande of France is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan on May 11 and 12, and it is expected that Leyla Yunus may meet with him when he is in Baku. In 2013 the French ambassador for human rights awarded Yunus France’s Legion of Honor award (Ordre National de la Légion d'honneur) – the highest French decoration – for her courage and promotion of human rights. Hollandeshould insist on seeing the Yunuses while in Baku and make clear that their freedom, and Mirgadirov’s, is of great importance to him, and to French-Azerbaijani relations.
On May 15, Azerbaijan will take over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights body. The body’s secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, should express urgent concern about harassment of the Yunuses and the treatment of Mirgadirov, as well as the wider crackdown on civic activists and journalists under way for the past year in Azerbaijan, which has intensified in recent months.
“The harassment against the Yunuses is only the latest example of the Azerbaijani government’s efforts to muzzle critics,” Denber said. “The Council of Europe’s top leadership should step in immediately and say that this conduct is utterly inappropriate for a government that is about to take over the organization’s chairmanship.”
Leyla Yunus is the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a human rights group formed in 1995 that has focused on combating politically motivated prosecutions, corruption, violence against women, and unlawful house evictions. It has also been involved in projects aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between people in Azerbaijan and Armenia, against the background of the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan.
In the April 28 incident, airport police at about 11 p.m. stopped the Yunuses from boarding a plane, searched their belongings, and confiscated a laptop computer and documents. Yunus told Human Rights Watch that the National Security Ministry and officials from the prosecutor general’s office questioned the couple at the airport, refusing to allow their lawyer access to them.
At about 3 a.m., law enforcement agents accompanied the couple to their apartment and attempted to search it. Because the officials refused to show Leyla Yunus a search warrant, she refused to allow them to enter. During the exchange at the apartment, Arif Yunus, who had been hospitalized the week before with high blood pressure and a heart condition, fell ill and was rushed to the hospital again. He is in intensive care.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, Leyla Yunus was questioned for hours at the prosecutor general’s office, this time in the presence of her lawyer. At about 4 p.m., she was released without charge. That evening police, producing a warrant, searched her home and her office, confiscating, among other things, books by Arif Yunus, a book in Armenian, a photocopy of Mirgadirov’s ID, and computers.
Yunus’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that all of the prosecutor’s questions related to their work on building dialogue with Armenians and her relationship with Mirgadirov, who is facing charges of spying for Armenia in connection with trips he made to Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey in 2008 and 2009.
Mirgadirov had been involved in “second track diplomacy” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. He participated in meetings organized by nongovernmental organizations in Armenia aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between the conflicting sides. The Institute for Peace and Democracy co-organized some of those programs.
In an April 29 news article, the press service for the prosecutor general’s office said that the Yunuses were witnesses to a criminal investigation and alleged that they had previously ignored an attempt to be served with an interrogation summons and follow-up phone calls asking them to appear for questioning.
Yunus’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that on April 24 an official came to the Yunuses’ home to deliver a summons to appear for interrogation in several hours, which Leyla Yunus refused, saying she had not received adequate notice. Another person close to the case told Human Rights Watch that this incident had resulted in Arif Yunus’s earlier hospitalization with hypertension.
Azerbaijan has a long history of using bogus charges to imprison its critics, including on treason charges, Human Rights Watch said.
In August 2011, violating a court injunction, the Baku authorities demolished without warning a building owned by Leyla Yunus as part of a government land clearance to make way for a park and business area. The building housed the Institute for Peace and Democracy and two other human rights groups. Yunus had repeatedly criticized the government’s redevelopment plans for the area.
“The ordeal the authorities subjected the Yunuses to bears all the marks of a government getting ready to pounce on two people it has long had in its crosshairs,” Denber said. “The government needs to back off and both President Hollande and the Council of Europe need to make that clear.”