It’s been a year since a host of high-profile human rights activists were detained in Azerbaijan. Critics believe the arrests were carried out in an attempt to quell any dissent before the first ever European Games, which were held in Baku in June and seen by the government as a prime opportunity to promote the country as an “economic, political, and cultural center.”
Now that the stadiums are empty and the medals have been won, the court cases are kicking off.
The trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova began on Friday, while that of one of the most publicized prisoners — Leyla Yunus — started today. The 59-year-old director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy is being tried with her husband Arif on charges including large-scale fraud and tax evasion, that observers have labeled “trumped-up.”
On the first day of proceedings a judge rejected a request for Arif to be released from prison and put under house arrest for health reasons. Leyla also accused the prosecutor and witnesses of telling lies, and said she had never seen some of the people who were being presented as witnesses against her and her husband. The judge regarded her statements as behavior that was in contempt of court, according to local reports.
The Yunuses, who deny guilt, say the charges against them are politically motivated. The two human rights workers were arrested into custody within a week of each other last year, and were only reunited at their hearing on July 15.
The few people who managed to see the couple in person were shocked by their appearance. Both had lost weight, while Arif appeared to have a tumor growing on the back of his head. In a letter from prison last week, Leyla admonished the state for its “tyranny” and for refusing to let her speak at the hearing, while stating that she no longer thought she would be reunited with her husband and daughter “as a whole family” in this life.
The couple’s only daughter, Dinara Yunus, is currently resident in the Netherlands, where she has asylum, meaning she can’t travel back for the trial. She told VICE News that she will spend Monday glued to the internet, desperate for any information she can get on her parents.
“The only thing that worries me is their health right now,” Dinara told VICE News. “For me it’s so difficult and I don’t know what’s going on and I was terrified by the pictures and my dad in handcuffs, and my mom surrounded by so many police.
“They didn’t even help her to go down the stairs. She could barely move. I feel like they are very unprotected there and their health is deteriorating and nothing gets done.”
Leyla, a diabetic, has allegedly been assaulted by her cellmate — most recently on June 20, according to Dinara, who said nothing had been done about it by prison officials. Arif suffers from high blood pressure and heart problems, but Dinara believes he is being denied medical care. Both have been held in solitary confinement.
“I don’t expect it to be a fair trial, otherwise my parents would have been out already,” Dinara said, adding that the one glimmer of happiness was that her parents — married for 37 years and inseparable as she was growing up — had finally been reunited.
“I also heard that my parents were holding each other’s hands for an hour when they met inside the courtroom,” she said. “It makes me somehow happy that they saw each other but it makes me sad at the same time.”
Dinara called for more international pressure around the cases. “It shouldn’t go silent because the moment it does go silent they will just sentence them to death in a prison. So I expect international attention. I really expect embassies to be present during the trial.”
On her parents, Dinara said: “I want them to be free and safe and get medical treatment. I don’t want them to die there, I want them to be with me. They’re the only family I have.”
She continued: “This isn’t how human rights defenders should be treated. People who help others and have dedicated their lives to human rights.”
Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic wedged between Iran and Russia on the Caspian Sea, has particularly restrictive laws on NGOs, but its outspoken president Ilham Aliyev continues to boast about the country’s prowess and respect for civil society.
Last week, Aliyev — who was preceded as president by his father — received an award from Azerbaijan’s press council for his work on developing the country, the media, and “strengthening patriotism ideas in society.”
Many of the activists that are currently incarcerated were arrested because of accusations related to the NGOs they run or have founded.
Dinara as a child with Arif. Photo via Dinara Yunus
“We all know this trial is a show trial. We all know it’s not about the rule of law,” Dutch Labour party politician and European Member of Parliament (MEP) Kati Piri told VICE News.
Piri attended Leyla and Arif’s hearing on July 13 in what she said was “the smallest courtroom possible in Baku.” Over half of those trying to enter the courtroom couldn’t fit in, she added.
On the Yunus’s appearance, Piri noted: “It was a shock to see them because of course they looked much worse than they did on the pictures from before their detention.”
For the two and a half hours that the hearing was held over, Piri said the couple sat close together. “For the first hour they weren’t even paying attention to the court case, they were of course talking to one another.”
Leyla held Arif’s hand with one of hers, according to Piri, while the other was almost constantly on the back of his head. “For at least half an hour, 40 minutes, Leyla Yunus was inspecting what was there,” Piri said. “She was feeling with her hand how big the tumor is and where it is at the back of the head.” According to Piri, Leyla then held up a sign against the glass cage they were forced to sit in which read “cancer” in Russian.
After that, Leyla began searching the courtroom for familiar faces. Piri said at the end she approached the glass cage Leyla was in and told her that Piri had come to represent the European Parliament, and that they were showing support and hadn’t forgotten her situation. The European member states represented by embassies in Baku have agreed a rotation system to ensure attendance throughout the trial, according to Piri.
Dinara with her mother, Leyla. Photo via Dinara Yunus
Leyla’s human rights work has been recognized before by the European Parliament. In 2014, she was a finalist for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
While Piri said that the understanding that the Yunus’s detention was politically motivated is “not a controversial issue among political groups,” she added that “Azerbaijan can get away with it because of business interests that are involved. And that’s in the field of energy of course.” She then pointed to BP‘s role in the country.
When questioned further, Piri said: “Let’s be honest, the UK — by having such a heavy business interest in Azerbaijan — could also be and should also be perhaps the most vocal of all of them… It is a British company which is the main business partner in Azerbaijan so I think the country with the strongest leverage among European countries must be the UK.”
The only hope, according to the MEP, is that Azerbaijan realizes how much damage the imprisonment of human rights defenders is doing to its reputation and decides to release the detainees.
“Without too much international attention they’re trying to rush to hold these politically motivated cases,” she said. “That’s why I believe it’s extra important that in the European Parliament we let the authorities know that we are paying attention to all these cases and there will be repercussions in the end if we see that Azerbaijan is not changing their policies.”
In April, another human rights campaigner, Rasul Jafarov, was sentenced to six and a halfyears in prison, while human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev received seven and a half years. Others still incarcerated include Hilal Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, and journalist Rauf Mirqadirov.
VICE News contacted the government of Azerbaijan for a statement but received no reply.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd