Arif Yunus, an Azerbaijani scholar and independent activist, was the first Azerbaijan expert I had ever met. It was 23 years ago, I had just started working for Human Rights Watch and was planning my first trip to Azerbaijan. Arif had been a friend to Human Rights Watch, helping us understand a brutal Soviet crackdown that had taken place there in 1990. When we talked on the phone last week, I wanted him to know Human Rights Watch would fight until the end for the freedom of his wife, Leyla, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders, whom police had just arrested.
Now I want him to know we’ll fight until the end for his freedom too.
Arif was arrested today. Last week both he and Leyla were charged with treason and tax evasion. A court released Arif to police supervision and house arrest in light of his health, but sent Leyla to three months of pretrial custody. Today a court ordered him locked him up for three months pending trial for allegedly violating the terms of his house arrest.
Leyla has severe diabetes, which she controlled by taking special medicine and eating food that she prepared herself at specific intervals. Since her arrest, Arif had been her lifeline – bringing her food so she could try to maintain her diet, even though the pretrial prison could not provide her with the medicine she needs. In fact he was on his way to deliver food to the pretrial prison when law enforcement arrested him.
To me it is unreal that two such towering figures in Azerbaijan’s public life, let alone my dear friends, are behind bars. But it was all too real to Leyla. For months, as the pace of arrests of government critics intensified – now at least 40 are behind bars – she warned colleagues repeatedly that her time would come.
It had better be all too real for the Council of Europe – of which Azerbaijan, in a perverse stroke of irony, holds the rotating Committee of Ministers chairmanship – and its member states. There are yet more human rights defenders who are in immediate danger of arrest. If you think their status as respected figures in Baku, or Strasbourg, or Brussels, or their age, or state of health provides a measure of safety, think twice. The Council of Europe leadership has to make it clear to the Azerbaijani government that it must immediately release the Yunuses and the many other activists it has thrown behind bars in stark contempt of its human rights obligations.