Early this morning, I woke up to four very happy words: "Rachel, they are here." And then two more: “With me."
They were from Dinara Yunus, who for almost two years has been fighting for the freedom of her parents, Leyla and Arif Yunus.
Leyla Yunus is one of Azerbaijan's most outspoken human rights defenders. Azerbaijani authorities arrested Leyla and Arif Yunus on bogus treason and other charges in summer 2014, eventually handing them long prison sentences. At the end of 2015, a court converted their prison terms to a suspended sentence, and they were released and allowed to return home.
But their chronic health conditions worsened severely during their time behind bars, and their outstanding prison sentences meant they were banned from foreign travel and so could not access the medical care they badly needed.
Dinara Yunus, who lives in the Netherlands, fought every day to get diplomats and policy makers to persuade the Azerbaijani government to allow her parents to join her in Amsterdam. The video of Dinara and her parents at the airport is more powerful than any words anyone could write about this family being reunited after such a wrenching ordeal.
The Yunuses are just two of dozens of activists who were arrested and imprisoned in the Azerbaijani government's sweeping crackdown over the past few years. The government recently released 14 others activists, but others remain behind bars – including Azerbaijan's top investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova; a prominent political analyst, Ilgar Mammadov; and another journalist, Seymur Hazi. The government should free them immediately.
A labyrinth of highly restrictive and punitive rules and regulations on non-governmental organizations remains in place, making it almost impossible for independent activists to carry out their work without risking their freedom.
It will take a lot to persuade the Azerbaijani government to free all the activists who have been unjustly imprisoned, and to end the crackdown. As the Dutch foreign minister – who negotiated with the Azerbaijani government for the Yunuses to be released – rightly noted in his statement today, it will take a combination of efforts: speaking out, strong human rights organizations and silent diplomacy. It will need the commitment and engagement of all of Azerbaijan's international partners.
Then maybe we'll start to see joyful videos of more Azerbaijani activists being reunited with their families.