Joint Statement: Azerbaijan must stop pressuring human rights activist Leyla Yunus and husband

The Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition of over 50 human rights NGOs from around the world is gravely concerned about the recent acts of intimidation and harassment targeting well-known Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband. At a time when Azerbaijan is about to take over the over chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, we call on its government to comply with its international commitments on freedom of expression, association and movement and other fundamental rights and stop pressuring the couple, as well as other individuals who are critical of the authorities.

Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus were prevented from leaving Azerbaijan late on 28 April as they were about to leave for Paris and Brussels, where they were to attend an international event. They were detained at the airport in Baku and held throughout the night.  The following morning Leyla Yunus was taken to  the Grave Crimes Investigation Unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office for hours of questioning, while her husband had to be hospitalized due to heart problems. . On 29 April, her Leyla Yunus’ home and office were also searched.

The grounds for the detention and interrogation of the couple are unclear, but  there are fears that they may be charged with espionage and spying for a third country, similarly to  Rauf Mirgadirov, an Ankara-based Azerbaijani journalist who was forcibly returned to Azerbaijan from Turkey in mid-April. Upon return   he was arrested by the Azerbaijani authorities on charges of espionage on behalf of Armenia. This has given rise to concern about a new dangerous trend of using accusations of spying to go after independent voices in Azerbaijan, seen as part of a widening crackdown on dissent in the recent period.

Leyla Yunus is chairperson of the Peace and Democracy Institute, a Baku-based NGO that has not been granted registration by the authorities, thus rendering the group and its leader particularly vulnerable. She has been actively involved in initiatives of peace-building between Azerbaijan and Armenia through people-to-people dialogue.  Among others, she is running a joint website with an Armenian human rights defender and journalist. Her husband, a recognized historian and author of many books, as well as Rauf Mirgadirov have also participated in peace-building initiatives at the civil society level. Leya Yunus has reported that police questioned her about her relationship to Mirgadirov.

The recent actions targeted against Leyla Yunus, who holds a French honorary award given to her for her human rights work, and her husband come only two weeks before a scheduled visit by the French president to Azerbaijan. The couple was supposed to meet with the French president during his visit.

The Platform urges the French authorities, as well as other representatives of the international community to call on the Azerbaijani government to:

  • Refrain from any further acts of intimidation and harassment  against Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus and ensure that they are not criminally charged or punished in other ways for exercising freedom of expression, association and other basic rights;
  • Release Rauf Mirgadirov and others  who are currently held on political grounds in the country; and
  • Take other concrete measures to live up to its commitments as a member of the Council of Europe, a European-wide organization founded on common values of democracy and human rights. This should include measures in line with the recommendations made by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, who last week expressed concern that freedom of expression, assembly and association continue to deteriorate in the country.

ARTICLE 19 along with the member and partner NGOs of the Human Rights House Network and the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders wrote to the Azerbaijani authorities to:

  • Express that they are extremely worried to see that human rights defenders, including journalists and bloggers, are persecuted, attacked and detained due to their work. In addition to Leyla Yunus, the Chairperson of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS) Anar Mammadli, the Executive Director of EMDS Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov, president of the Volunteers of International Cooperation, are facing court trials;
  • Ahead of the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe by the Republic of Azerbaijan, call upon the authorities of Azerbaijan to put an end to the crackdown of the civil society and to take steps in order to foster a safe environment for human rights defenders;
  • Further call upon the authorities to report to the Council of Europe on Azerbaijan’s plans to investigate the acts of the State agents, which prevented Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus from leaving the country and later detained them and to end all persecutions against them and other human rights defenders.