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Baku's Unchecked Abuses

Recently banned from traveling abroad, leading Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus says the West is turning a blind eye to the Aliev regime’s excesses.

by Shahla Sultanova 27 June 2014

As director of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, Leyla Yunus has been the leading human rights activist in Azerbaijan for nearly two decades. She is a vocal critic of President Ilham Aliev and a longtime advocate of reconciliation with Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.


On 28 April, preparing to board a flight to Qatar, Yunus and her husband were detained at Baku’s airport and held overnight. She was subsequently banned from leaving the country, without being charged with a crime.

Yunus350Leyla Yunus confronts police who had come to conduct a search of her lawyer's apartment the day after she and her husband were stopped at the Baku airport and prohibited from leaving the country. Image from a video by Meydan TV.


The arrest, which prompted an international outcry, was part of a sudden crackdown on dissent that took many in Azerbaijan by surprise, coming as it did two weeks before the country took over the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, a prominent human rights body. Nine days prior to Yunus’ detention, authorities arrested journalist Rauf Mirkadirov, another high-profile Aliev critic, on spying charges that the United States called “troubling.” In early May, eight youth activists from the NIDA opposition group were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for their role in a March 2013 protest in Baku.


Since succeeding his father, Heydar Aliev, in 2003, Ilham Aliev has reigned over one of the most oppressive regimes in the former Soviet Union. Rights watchdogs estimate that as many as 143 political prisoners are behind bars, according to the U.S. State Department. After Mirkadirov’s arrest, Yunus publicly predicted that she would soon be picked up.


TOL correspondent Shahla Sultanova recently talked to Yunus about human rights in Azerbaijan, the irony of the country’s Council of Europe chairmanship, and whether the West is ignoring Baku’s abuses because of its energy wealth. 


TOL: For the West, what is the significance of Azerbaijan today?


Leyla Yunus: İt depends on the circumstances and people. The West is split between politicians, and journalists and human right defenders. The latter group cares about democracy in other countries more than the former. They work hard and do their best.


What about politicians in the West? Do they care about human rights in Azerbaijan?


Politicians in the West vary. But if we take the Council of Europe, a symbol of human rights and democracy, today we can “congratulate” the council on its new chairman: Azerbaijan. The country has a lot of political prisoners. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders all report on this. But the West has not sanctioned Azerbaijan. İt gives the regime a green light to be even more repressive.


Why haven’t western governments sanctioned Azerbaijan over political prisoners?


Because of a few factors. The Council of Europe is more supportive of the Azerbaijani government than the Azerbaijani people. There was no rapporteur on political prisoners at the council until Christopher Strasser, a German MP, was appointed in 2009. When Azerbaijan refused to issue Mr. Strasser a visa, the Council of Europe tolerated this and did nothing.


Many other [European politicians] are not aware of the situation in Azerbaijan. It is difficult for nongovernmental organizations in Azerbaijan to share the truth with the West. These factors play a huge role in why the Council of Europe has trouble influencing the Azerbaijani government on human rights. Now it is even being led by Azerbaijan.


The relationship between Russia and the West has been strained over Ukraine. Russia uses energy to pressure Western governments, and it just cut natural gas supplies to Ukraine for the third time since 2006. Is the West ignoring human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, an oil and gas producer, because of concerns about energy security?


I would not say this, because Azerbaijan does not have large-scale gas supplies. [Editor’s note: Azerbaijan's proven natural gas reserves rank 26th in the world at 35 trillion cubic feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.] The winner is Iran. Iran will be an important county in terms of energy. Europe and the U.S. are focused on Ukraine. So the West cannot give its full attention to a small country like Azerbaijan. The Aliev regime has taken advantage of this by increasing repression of civic activists. Almost every week someone from civil society is arrested, and many are on trial.


Which is more important for the West: energy or protecting human rights in Azerbaijan?


This question is raised in local media almost every day. It is hard to say what is more important for the West. But the truth is that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is getting worse. Human rights are violated, the law is ignored, courts aren’t independent. But the West doesn’t respond sufficiently. By the West I mean the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the European Union.


The government cracked down on you and other activists like those in NIDA right as Azerbaijan took over the Council of Europe chairmanship. Repression is nothing new in Azerbaijan, but the timing was a surprise. Why did the government do this?


That is right. Azerbaijan started its chairmanship on 14 May. Perviz Hashimli, a journalist, was sentenced to eight years in prison [on 15 May]. Soon afterward, on 26 May, Anar Mammadli, head of the Azerbaijani Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, and his assistant, Bashir Suleymanli, were sentenced to five and three years in prison, respectively.


Arrests happen almost every day, and people arrested for their political views are put on trial almost every day. This reflects the Azerbaijani government’s confidence that it won’t face sanctions. When he’s in Brussels, President Aliev says there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. He also says Azerbaijani courts are free and [government officials] have no right to interfere. Neither politicians nor journalists want to challenge him about it.


We cannot predict exactly how and where people will rise up against their governments. But people grow opposed to corrupt, repressive regimes, as happened in Ukraine and Egypt. This could be a good lesson for the Aliev regime to start thinking about democratic elections, but instead they choose to be more repressive. They arrest and question young people to intimidate the population. They act like this because they are insecure and know the nation hates them.


How far will it go? When will the abuses end?


We need to have freedom of expression and free thought to end it. Journalists, bloggers, and activists are certainly key, and the role of citizens is no less important. Citizens should feel and act like citizens, not slaves. They should defend their rights. According to [the Institute for Peace and Democracy’s] list, there are more than 130 political prisoners in the country. Their families fight for them until they are sentenced. But then they stop – they do not continue the struggle.


NIDA, Anar Mammadli, and other civic activists, journalists, and bloggers are not enough to challenge the government. The will of the people is necessary.


Will Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe change anything?


No, nothing will change. That is certain. It will get even worse. I expect more repression. People expect amnesties. That will not happen either.


You said citizens are key to building democracy in Azerbaijan. But they aren’t very politically active. Why?


First, because of the economy. Life in Azerbaijan is hard. All the money goes to one family, one clan. Unemployment is high. And people can hardly find a job to meet their families’ daily needs. The salaries of teachers and health care workers range from 100 euros to 300 euros [$136 to $409] a month.


The second reason is fear. Parents see young people being arrested for just trying to protect their rights at universities and so encourage their children to stay away from any political activity.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku.


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