Azerbaijan’s government had been pushed hard to free several jailed young activists, but their release last week left a bitter aftertaste in the repressive Caucasus republic. The European Union welcomed the October-17 amnesty, but government critics say Azerbaijani officials made an unsavory show out of it.
Four young democracy activists had to address a letter of repentance to their President Ilham Aliyev to be included in the list of 80 prisoners pardoned by the president. Upon release, two of the young men, Bahtiyar Guliyev and Elsevyar Mursalli, brought flowers to the grave of President Aliyev’s father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev.
The civil-rights group NIDA said its members were pressured to write the apology-letter since the authorities are trying to exonerate themselves for arresting “young people, political activists, rights defenders, bloggers for their civil activism.”
There is hardly an international democracy watchdog left that has not accused the Azerbaijani government of rounding up critics on trumped-up charges. Its chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers notwithstanding.
The European Union chose to focus on the positive, however. “We greet this amnesty as a positive first step in reversing the trend of recent months. We urge the authorities to build upon this step by extending the amnesty to other individuals belonging to civil society organization who currently face imprisonment,” the EU said in an October 20 statement.
The list of such jailed individuals most prominently includes Leyla Yunus, a longtime rights and civil diplomacy activist. Facing spy charges and, allegedly torture, in prison, Yunus was nominated for Europe’s top human rights award , the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and came in third.
Despite an international push to free her, the chances for Yunus’ release don’t seem too good at this stage. Western powers take a critical but careful approach toward energy ally Azerbaijan, while Yunus is not the type to make remorseful pleas, as her recent letter from prison suggests.
“[T]heir goal is not just the destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes a desired escape from the terrible suffering,” she wrote her husband Arif Yunus, who is also under arrest, in a letter published by Meydan TV.