A daughter of jailed Azerbaijani dissidents, Dinara Yunus, is among the growing choir of Azerbaijan’s critics who are using the upcoming “European Olympics” to draw attention to reported repressions in the Caspian-Sea country.
“My parents dedicated 30 years of their lives to human rights. Now they are in different cells in different prisons because they dared to speak out,” Yunus says in a recent YouTube video. Released by the UK human rights group Amnesty International, the video mixes her monologue with footage of the large-scale preparations in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, for the European Games this June.
“Mr. President [Ilham Aliyev], can you tell me why my mother is in prison after she was critical of the upcoming European games?” Yunus asks in the tape.
Dinara’s mother, prominent human-rights activist Leyla Yunus, is controversially jailed on charges that include tax evasion and spying for the enemy state of Armenia. International democracy-watchdogs scoff at these charges, and those against her husband Arif Yunus and many other activists, as politically motivated.
Charging that Azerbaijan now has as much freedom of speech as can fit inside a prison cell, international human rights groups and emigrant Azerbaijani activists are banking on the June 12-28 European Games to put an international spotlight on what they describe as the government’s authoritarian excesses.
Prominent Azerbaijani media-rights activist Emin Huseynov has been living in the Swiss embassy in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, since last August, the Swiss government has acknowledged.
Huseynov, a government-critic who previously had been detained and badly beaten by police, had fled to the embassy to escape possible arrest.
The embassy granted Huseynov shelter on humanitarian grounds, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs wrote the Swiss television program Rundschau in a letter the program made public on February 11. The department confirmed that the Swiss government is in talks with Azerbaijan “to find a solution” for Huseynov’s situation.
After reports surfaced last August from Azerbaijan that he had been arrested, 35-year-old Huseynov, who ran the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a frequent source for EurasiaNet.org stories, was known to be in hiding at an undisclosed location.
Having been denied exit from Azerbaijan, Huseynov already had seen the telltale signs of a pending arrest — his bank account had been frozen, his office raided by police.
Foreign Policy’s Michael Weiss, drawing on an exclusive by "sources close to Huseynov," reported that the activist, whose wife is an American, had first approached the US embassy for help, but allegedly had been refused by Chargé d’Affaires Dereck Hogan. (The US mission to the OSCE did call on Azerbaijan to stop its crackdown on “peaceful activists,” including Huseynov.) The State Department did not respond to requests for follow-up comment, the magazine reported.
Hopes for a fair trial for Khadija Ismayilova, the investigative reporter recently imprisoned in Azerbaijan, have been further dashed by the surprise-disbarment of one of her lawyers.
The Azerbaijan Bar Association ruled on December 10 that attorney Khalid Bagirov allegedly had breached professional ethics when he questioned the fairness of a court decision in the case against another of his clients, opposition-leader Ilgar Mammadov, jailed in 2013 for supposedly inciting a riot.
Ismayilova, who worked for RFE/RL and, also, in the past, for EurasiaNet.org, is still represented by Elton Guliyev.
Bagirov, who has been disbarred before, sees the decision as an attempt by the government to silence him. “I accept the decision of the bar association as a prize for the work I’ve done,” he told RFE/RL.
Prison is increasingly the place to find the most prominent of Azerbaijan’s journalists, activists and freethinkers. The last public glimpse of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova came on December 5, when a police-car carried her off to prison as she waved to friends and supporters, who ran alongside chanting “Khadija!”
Her apartment has since been searched, her Facebook page already deactivated (not long before her sentence became public) and she remains in pre-trial detention in Kyurdakhany prison, outside the capital, Baku, for the next two months.
Ismayilova, an RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, stands accused of allegedly pushing a former colleague to attempt to commit suicide. The charge follows a series of exposes by Ismayilova into corruption among members of the presidential family and other senior officials.
The arrest has sparked a fusillade of international accusations against Azerbaijan again trying to silence critical media voices. Rallies to protest Ismayilova's detention already have been planned for this week outside of Azerbaijan's embassies in Washington and Tbilisi.
Baku, as usual, has brushed off the criticism as “baseless and biased,” and insists that vague certain circles seek to sully Azerbaijan’s good name. “Azerbaijan has never prosecuted any of its citizens as well as any mass media representative over freedom of speech, and they never suffered from pressure by any official authority,” claimed President Ilham Aliyev’s spokesperson, Azer Gasimov, the pro-government APA reported on Monday.
The tug-of-war started publicly this summer when the New-York-City-based Human Rights Watch, which is not an EITI member, called for the group to end Azerbaijan’s membership over its harsh treatment of civil-society activists, journalists and opposition members.
Others agreed it was time to put Azerbaijan under the lens. “If people can attend every EITI meeting but have their bank accounts frozen for being critical - or can get hounded by authorities for asking questions publicly about oil or mining deals once they step outside those meetings - then that is not an enabling environment.” said alternate EITI board member Brendan O’Donnell from Global Witness, a natural-resources-corruption watchdog, in an October-16 statement.
After a check-up visit in Baku in late September, EITI management announced that “The situation facing civil society in Azerbaijan is clearly problematic.”
With Azerbaijan’s prisons increasingly full of government-detractors, it might have seemed to many only a matter of time before Azerbaijani prosecutors would again focus on Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist known for her exposés of government corruption. Speaking from Strasbourg, Ismayilova told EurasiaNet.org that she expects to be arrested on October 3, upon her return home to Baku from a trip to Europe.
Ismayilova received a court summons on charges of criminal libel during this trip, travel intended to relay what is widely seen as a wholesale crackdown on civil society in the energy-rich, ex-Soviet republic. An award-winning RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, Ismayilova needs to appear in court the day she returns to Baku.
“I will be arriving with a lawyer and my main lawyer will be waiting [in Baku],” she said.
Her trip was closely watched in Baku. At one human-rights talk in Warsaw, hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ismayilova and several other participants, wearing t-shirts with the photos of Azerbaijani political prisoners, turned their backs on a presentation on human-rights issues, which, they charged, lacquered over ongoing repressions. Azerbaijan’s government-linked media was quick to attack Ismayilova, claiming she was commanding a group of people from Armenia, the country’s longtime foe.
Authorities in Azerbaijan are seeing red after a democracy-watchdog activist they jailed received an international award from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Granting the Vaclav Havel prize for civil society activism to Anar Mammadli constitutes outside pressure on an independent state, Ali Hasanov, a key aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, declared on September 30.
In a familiar line, Hasanov attributed the award to contrivances by Azerbaijan’s enemies. He said that such steps serve to “support the fifth column underwritten by certain foreign forces” [a frequent euphemism for enemy-neighbor Armenia] and that Azerbaijan is free to arrest those who violate the law. “It is quite obvious that certain organizations, acting behind the façade of human-rights advocacy, are not at all independent and follow very concrete instructions,” he declared, the pro-government APA news agency reported.
Azerbaijan, however, currently chairs a committee within one of the "certain organizations," the Council of Europe, the continent ’s main human-rights body, and the award put the CoE in an awkward place. (Azerbaijan holds the seat until November.) Many critics argue that the 47-nation forum is not the place for Azerbaijan, which recently has detained scores of journalists, civil-society leaders and activists who criticize the government.
A worldwide club for companies, governments and civil-society groups which support publicizing information about revenues received from energy and mining operations, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, known as EITI, puts public transparency at the center of its creed.*
For Human Rights Watch, however, that’s the rub. Azerbaijan’s increasingly frequent liking for prosecuting or harassing critical human-rights activists, youth-activists, opposition members and independent journalists does not signal a deep respect for transparency or good governance, the group argues.
“Azerbaijan is blatantly violating EITI rules, and EITI cannot afford to be complicit in this hypocrisy,” charged senior business and human-rights researcher Lisa Misol in an August 14 statement.*
Azerbaijan, an EITI founding member, joined the movement in 2003, and was deemed compliant in 2009. Today, its State Oil Fund sits on the EITI board.
The movement has not yet responded publicly to HRW’s criticism.
In its own response, Azerbaijan might be sorely tempted just to press the Play button on a pre-recorded rebuttal. Rarely a week goes by that the government argues that it’s not violating the law in prosecuting activists and journalists, but upholding it.
There are controversies at both ends of the roughly 3,800-kilometer-long pipeline project, which involves three sections; first, stretching from Azerbaijan to Turkey; the second, from Turkey to Greece; and the final leg, from Greece to Italy. Tony Blair is advising this final segment, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).
In southern Italy, where TAP, is expected to make its landing, worries persist that the project will interfere with olive-growing and the mating of seals, as well as cause damage to the area’s rich cultural heritage, The Guardian has reported.
At the Azerbaijani start of the line, critics charge that Blair's helping hand for TAP will only further enable Baku to crackdown on civil rights without fear of the international consequences.
Never a pinup for democratic reform, Azerbaijan has seen its human rights situation go from bad to worse of late with the authorities arresting critics right and left, and non-government flows of information feeling the pinch.
In the latest from Azerbaijan’s ongoing series of arrests of government critics, an outspoken rights defender, Leyla Yunus, has been arrested, and accused of spying for enemy Armenia.
Yunus never made a secret of her attempts to promote peace with Armenia through civilian initiatives, but what some call citizen diplomacy, Azerbaijani prosecutors called treason. Prosecutors claimed Yunus, who chairs the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was visiting Armenia to impart sensitive information. Her husband, Arif Yunus, was also charged on July 30, but was released pending trial.
Earlier this year, Leyla Yunus spoke up vocally for another imprisoned alleged enemy of the state, journalist Rauf Mirkadirov. Police then detained the Yunuses at the airport and have withheld their passports since. Leyla Yunus has defied several subpoena requests, until she was remanded on July 30. Prosecutors now accuse Yunus and Mirkadirov of spying together for Armenia.