When I enter the small court room I see in the left corner a glass cage with in it the well-known Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif. The show trial against them is about to start after they have spent almost one year in pre-trial detention, seperated from each other. I have mixed emotions when I see them. Painful to witness because it is under such humiliating citcumstances, being caged and treated as heavy criminals. But I am also in a strange way glad that I’ll be able to tell their daughter Dinara that finally – after all this time and after everything they have already gone through – her parents are together for at least a few hours, holding hands again.
Their nightmare started almost one year ago when Leyla was arested and shortly afterwards they also took Arif. This happened in a period of a general crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers and well known journalists in Azerbaijan. In September 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the authorities for the immediate release of Leyla and all other political prisoners. In December she was short-listed for the European Parliament’s human rights award, the Sakharov prize.
During the last months, I had intensive contact with their daughter Dinara. She was given political asylum in the Netherlands in 2009. Together with the relatives, friends and supporters of all political prisoners, she had hoped that the Baku European Games would put the spotlight on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and bring positive change to the faith of these people. The Games have ended, and no such thing happened.
Two prominent jailed human rights defenders, Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov have recently already been convicted for respectively 7,5 and 6,5 years. Now the other high profile cases are about to start. Journalist Khadija Ismayilova’s first appearance in court is planned for 24 July. The previous decisions don’t give much hope for fair trials and unconditional release of the political prisoners.
The fear of many is that after a while the international attention will fade away. That is why I didn’t have to think long whether I would go to Azerbaijan when the date of the initial hearing of the Yunus couple was announced for 15 July. I decided to go in order to show support and solidarity with these brave people – defenders of values that every government should be proud of, not fear and suppress.
Together with many Western embassy staff we stood ready for the hearing on Monday morning, in front of the court house, when we heard that it got postponed two days without any reason given. Therefore, I prolonged my stay and decided to make the best use of my time in Baku by meeting with Azerbaijani NGO representatives, opposition figures and European embassies.
Wednesday morning I was back at the court. When shortly after one another two penitentiary busses appeared and entered the court’s gates, we knew the trial would start. All phones and IDs had to be handed over to the security officers upon entrance. The court room was very small and only 30 people could enter – the rest had to stay outside.
The initial hearing lasted 2,5 hours and all petitions by the defendants’ lawyers were denied. This means they have to stay in the glass cage during the entire trial, Leyla’s imprisonment will not be changed into home arrest even though her health conditions are bad and the request to put the hearing under a court for economic offences instead of a court for heavy crimes was also rejected.
While during the first hour, the couple mainly spoke with each other, after a while Leyla started standing up to see who were present and giving signals to journalists that her husband needs medical attention. When the three judges left the room for consultation on the petitions, Leyla stood up and started to speak with those present. It took a couple of minutes before the 15 security officers in the room responded and eventually took both of them out of the court room, to return a couple of minutes later.
It is known that she has very serious health problems and only the day before her treatment for hepatitis C had started. She also recalled the three occassions when she was beaten up in prison and said that due to the last attack on 20 June, she lost much of her sight. But she was most worried about her husband’s health situation, saying he has a big bump on the back of his head which urgently needs to be examined. He was also not able to sleep for 11 months without taking any medicine.
When the judges re-appeared, Leyla repeatedly – some 15 times – requested to use her right to speak. This was turned down with the reasoning that because she did not cooperate with the trial and had not responded to any of the questions asked, she had lost that right. The last thing the judges announced was the date of the next meeting: 27 July at 10:00.
At the end of the hearing, when the people were gently shown to the exit, I managed to go up front and speak to Leyla through the glasswindow. I told her that many people follow their case and support them in their fight for justice. She urged the international community to continue to observe the trial, which according to their lawyers, could last a couple of months.
I hope with my presence I have encouraged Leyla and Arif to stay strong and shown that the outside world did not forget about them. We must continue to call for the immediate release of Leyla, Arif, Intigam, Rasul, Khadija and all other political prisoners in Azerbaijan. A beautiful country, with very nice and hospitable people, but severely damaging its international reputation by this unacceptable crackdown on critical voices.