Azerbaijan’s leadership takes great pride in its achievements since the fall of the Soviet Union. The country’s wealth stems from the millions of barrels of oil pumped daily through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. However, there is a hidden side to this fast modernising Muslim nation on the shores of the Caspian Sea, which touts itself as the “European charm of the orient“.
The arrest of Azerbaijani activist Leyla Yunus at Baku Haydar Aliyev Airport on April 28, has highlighted Azerbaijan’s questionable record on press freedom and human rights. The 58-year-old Yunus, recognised regionally for her pro-democracy activism, was released after spending one night in jail but her passport was confiscated, although she has not been charged with any crime.
In stark contrast to Baku’s efforts to be viewed internationally as a leading democracy in the region, the country has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for its dubious election practises, ongoing violent crackdown on freedom of expression and its deteriorating human rights record.
Who is Leyla Yunus?
In the late 1980s, Yunus was an active member of the nascent democratic movement in the country. She is one of the founders of Azerbaijan’s Social Democrats Party and the Azerbaijan Popular Front – two important political formations which played a pivotal role in the country’s early years of independence. During the early 1990s, Yunus headed the information and analytical centre at the Ministry of Defence.
As a human rights advocate, Yunus’ focus has always been on political prisoners. The founder and director of the Peace and Democracy Institute, a Baku-based non-governmental organisation, she has been an outspoken opponent of the growing intimidation and pressure over individual and fundamental freedoms in the country. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards for her invaluable work in the field of human rights advocacy and courage – including France’s Legion of Honour and Germany’s Theodor Haecher Prize.
Apart from her advocacy work, Yunus has also been involved in a number of cross-border initiatives with neighbouring Armenia ever since the ceasefire was signed between the two countries in 1994. The conflict, which erupted at the end of the 1980s, may have ended but tensions remain. As a result, a number of public figures and journalists have been engaged in what is now known as “track two” diplomacy or people-to-people diplomacy. Yunus and the Peace and Democracy Institute have spearheaded such efforts.
Apart from her advocacy work, Yunus has also been involved in a number of cross-border initiatives with neighbouring Armenia ever since the ceasefire was signed between the two countries in 1994.
Whether it was her advocacy work or her involvement in track two initiatives which resulted in Yunus’ detention, it is not yet clear. However, in light of the recent arrest of another well-known public diplomacy advocate and respected journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov, it might well be the latter.
Mirkadirov, who was based in Turkey for the past four years and was the Azerbaijani correspondent for the local Azerbaijani Zerkalo/Ayna newspaper, was deported to Azerbaijan on April 19. In Baku, he was arrested and placed in a three-month pretrial detention pending further investigation. He is charged with treason, the gravest of crimes in Azerbaijan. He is accused of supplying valuable information between 2008 and 2009 to the Armenian Ministry of Defence and is facing a possible life sentence if convicted.
Mirkadirov is known as an outspoken critic of the Baku government and his move to Turkey four years ago was the result of mounting pressure on the journalist and his family in Azerbaijan.
Following Mirkadirov’s arrest, Yunus feared the approaching storm and made a public statement where she said her arrest was imminent.
‘They will do it for treason’
“It would be funny to arrest me with drug charges. So, they will do it for treason, since these cases are considered behind closed doors,” she was quoted as saying to the local broadcast of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.She was briefly detained a week after her statement when she and her husband were on their way abroad.
Upon arrival at the airport, Yunus and her husband were first stopped at the border control. She was informed she was barred from leaving the country although no such notice was given to her at any time prior to her departure. It was only following the intervention from representatives of the French and US embassies who accompanied the Yunus family to the airport that their passports were stamped and they were let through.
However, as the couple was about to board the plane, they were stopped yet again, this time with no explanation and were held at the airport from 11pm until 3am on April 28. According to a statement by Yunus given on the phone from the airport, their luggage was searched, their passports were taken away from them (as of April 30, their passports remain with the authorities), and her personal laptop was confiscated as well as her personal documents and letters.
“They even went through my underwear,” she said, “as they searched through my personal belongings still with no official document”. At the airport, Yunus was informed that her house and office would be searched as well.
In the early hours of the morning, Yunus was taken into questioning, without a warrant, at the prosecutor’s office. She was questioned about her work but mostly about her relations with Mirkadirov and their joint activities, Yunus said in a press statement following her release. Shortly after her questioning, Yunus’ office and home were searched. Several documents were confiscated from the couple’s apartment during the search.
Yunus’ lawyer Farid Bagirov, who also represents Mirkadirov, explained the reasons behind the searches. As it turns out, Yunus is listed as the key witness in Mirkadirov’s case. But according to Bagirov, this still does not explain why Yunus’ family was stopped at the border.
Exhausted from a sleepless night, Yunus said the motive behind this inquiry is the same as it has been in many other previous cases: “To eliminate remaining advocates by accusing us with an insane crime.”
Yunus might just be right. It is clear that the arrest of Mirkadirov and this recent incident with Yunus show very strong evidence of the Azerbaijani government’s issues with freedom of expression and its widely criticised poor human rights record in general. It is not surprising that a country run by the same family since 1993, with a record of disputed elections and with a strong grip on power, is trying to silence any form of dissent in order to maintain its status quo. What is disturbing, however, is the silence of the international community so long as the country continues to provide energy to keep everyone safe and warm.
Arzu Geybullayeva is a political analyst for the Caucasus region and a specialist in human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan, and blogs at flyingcarpetsandbrokenpipelines.blogspot.com.