Azerbaijan detains prominent human rights activists in fresh crackdown
Azerbaijan has detained at least four of the country’s most prominent human rights activists, prompting fears that authorities are intensifying efforts to silence campaigners ahead of the world’s first European Games in Baku next summer.
Veteran activist and lawyer Intigam Aliyev was detained in the Azeri capital last Friday, and charged with tax evasion, abuse of office and illegal entrepreneurship. He was swiftly jailed for three months. Amnesty International called the charges “trumped up” and said Aliyev had been “detained solely for his work as a human rights defender”.
Leyla Yunus, arguably one of the fiercest critics of Azerbaijan’s poor rights record, was detained the previous week, as was her husband Arif Yunus, and the democracy campaigner Rasul Jafarov. All three were placed under three-month pre-trial detention.
Leyla and Arif Yunus have been accused of treason, spying for Armenia, and illegal business activities, among other financial charges. Jafarov has been accused of tax evasion.
“Leyla Yunus is yet another independent voice in Azerbaijan who, for a long time, the government has tried to silence through threats and intimidation,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s researcher on Azerbaijan in reaction to her detention last week.
All four activists are believed to have been involved in drawing up a list of political prisoners currently held in Azerbaijan, which is due to be published in English this week. Azeri investigative journalist Khadiya Ismayil told The Guardian that Aliyev has now been added as the last entry.
The list is based on the definition of political prisoner offered by the Council of Europe, which aims to promote human rights on the continent. The organisation’s secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland said he had spoken to Azeri president Iham Aliyev, and told him of his “deep concerns about the arrests of prominent human rights defenders in recent days”. Despite its rights record, Azerbaijan currently presides over the organisation’s committee of ministers.
The authorities in Baku have said the charges against all four activists relate to the financial activities of the NGOs that they each act as directors for. All had their bank accounts frozen prior to their arrests.
Azay Guliyev, chairman of the country’s state support to NGOs, insisted that “the Azeri system is fair and transparent” and said the accounts were frozen as a “preventative measure because of irregularities in the operation of the NGOs managed by Aliyev, Jafarov and [Leyla] Yunus.”
Laws regulating NGOs have been tightened this year, making it more difficult to register and run them. At the time, then-EU foreign policy chief expressed concern that the move was aimed at “restricting the environment for an independent and critical civil society, especially in the field of human rights and democracy”. Guliyev said the amendments “aim at ensuring further transparency in this sector” and will help ”improve professional performance”.
However, many activists believe the detentions are part of a wider sweep ahead of the world’s first European Games, due to be held next summer in Baku.
Activists have already started mobilising in an attempt to use refocus attention for the games from the international community onto Azerbaijan’s human rights record, just as they did when Baku hosted the Eurovision song contest in 2012.
Gulivev said “Azerbaijan is quite confident that it will achieve its goal of holding these games with the utmost enthusiasm, security and professionalism.”
The accusations against Leyla Yunus also go beyond Azerbaijan’s borders. In addition to tax evasion and illegal business activities, she has also been charged with treason, for allegedly spying for Armenia. If she is found guilty, she could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban in Baku in 2013.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban in Baku in 2013. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP
In Azerbaijan, links to Armenia are an extremely sensitive issue, especially in the last month, when the ‘frozen conflict’ between the two countries over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region erupted. Though a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, no peace treaty was ever signed and dozens still die in clashes between the two sides every year. Yunus has advocated working with Armenian human rights activists in order to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Azerbaijan sharply increased it military spending in 2011, and President Aliyev has repeatedly threatened to attack Armenia in speeches and on Twitter.
Sylvana Kolaczkowska, a project director and Eurasia analyst at Freedom House, said she believes the perceived threat of war provides the Aliyev regime with the justification for a civil society crackdown that has been mounting for the past several years.
“It is not uncommon for illiberal – in this case, deeply authoritarian – regimes to use a security threat (whether real, imagined, or self-created) as a pretext for singling out alleged ‘traitors’ and cracking down on civil society and individual critics.”
Lawyer Khalid Bagirov, who is acting on behalf of all four activists, said the arrests are politically motivated, and added that their acquittal is nigh on “impossible”. He also expressed additional concern for Arif and Leyla Yunus, who both have long-running health problems. “Both of them require special care. Their relatives are not in the country, most of them have left. In this situation it is difficult to provide them with special meals and medications from the outside”, he said.
Over the last two years, the oil-rich country has passed several legal amendments making it more difficult for civil society organisations and activists to operate. Opposition rallies are systematically banned in Baku city centre. When they do happen, dozens of arrests are common-place, and often accompanied with violence.