“Arif, my darling! After 36 years of our life together, we are now in different cells. In different places.” These are words Leyla Yunus wrote last week to her husband from a prison in Baku, the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan, writes Rachel Denber.
Last month police arrested Leyla, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders, on treason and other charges. Six days later police arrested her husband, Arif, a historian and public figure in his own right, as he was taking the medicine and food she needs to control her severe diabetes.
In the two decades I’ve known and worked with Leyla and Arif, Azerbaijan has had some serious human rights problems. But even as government repression worsened in the past two years, nothing could really prepare me for the shock of Leyla and Arif behind bars, in sweltering cells, lacking medicine, food, and fresh air. Or the shock of Intigam Aliyev, the country’s top human rights lawyer, arrested a week later on bogus tax-related charges. Like Leyla and Arif, he is in his 50s and in ill health. Or Rasul Jafarov, a charismatic human rights defender, who turned 30 in prison last week, shortly after his arrest on similar tax charges.
Rasul, Intigam, and Leyla had been working together on a list of people the government has imprisoned on politically motivated charges. In the past two years that list has grown quite long, as the authorities have arrested dozens of bloggers and other social media activists, political activists, journalists, and human rights defenders on a host of flimsy charges. Now Rasul, Leyla, and Intigam are themselves on the list. The authorities are sparing no effort to coerce others to testify against Leyla, and to run a malicious smear campaign against them.
The authorities no doubt hope to cut off the head of the country’s human rights movement, silencing its voice and intimidating its followers. They’re also busy cutting off its legs, ruthlessly blocking funding to independent groups. In the past few months, banks have frozen the accounts of at least 12 groups and their leaders, citing a highly suspicious criminal investigation into their foreign donors and the local branches of foreign groups.
The government also refused to register grants obtained by those groups (until recently a legal requirement), keeping the groups from drawing on them. In just three weeks, three leading independent groups have essentially been forced to close, while a number of others are facing imminent closure. At the same time, several dedicated activists have fled the country or are in hiding.
With the world’s attention fractured by so many simultaneous crises, including in nearby Ukraine, it’s no surprise the Azerbaijani government would try now to deal a decisive blow against its critics. The United States and European Union, which usually engage Baku on human rights, are distracted. Perhaps the Kremlin’s assault on Russian independent groups was irresistible inspiration.
But the timing is also sadly perverse. Azerbaijan holds the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, Europe’s intergovernmental human rights body. The makers of this crackdown must be laughing themselves all the way to its headquarters in Strasbourg.
They might also think the country’s hydrocarbon wealth and geostrategic location will shield them from any political or diplomatic consequences. Here’s where they can be proved dead wrong.
Azerbaijan is a founder and board member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a prominent international coalition that aims to promote government openness in natural resource management. It brings together governments, businesses, and independent groups to promote open public debate, especially in resource-rich countries like Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani officials love to boast their involvement in this initiative as evidence of the country’s purported commitment to transparency and successful battle against corruption. Yet groups directly involved in this effort are among those on the brink of being forced to close, and their leaders have told us they greatly fear they’ll be arrested next. The governments and businesses involved in this initiative should stop this glaring hypocrisy and immediately call for Azerbaijan’s suspension.
A few years ago, Arif Yunus showed my colleague letters people had sent him and Leyla. The envelopes had no address, just their names and “Baku, Azerbaijan.” The post office knew where to deliver them. People all over Azerbaijan wrote to Leyla. Try as it may to sever the head and legs of Azerbaijan’s human rights movement, the government will never succeed in spiking its heart and soul.
Rachel Denber is Deputy Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch