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Human Rights are not a Game: Azerbaijan’s Leyla Yunus

As the close of the European Games on June 28 draws near, the question What will happen to Leyla Yunus remains. Yunus is one of the many human rights defenders and activists detained and imprisoned in Azerbaijan in advance of Baku 2015.

Poster at a conference organised by Ulrike Lunacek on May 12th. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user greensefa and used under a Creative Commons license.
Poster at a conference organised by Ulrike Lunacek on May 12th. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user greensefa and used under a Creative Commons license.

Since its founding in 1995, Dr. Leyla Yunus has served as the president and director of the Azerbaijan Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD). The IPD “activities involve research and analyses of the ways to preserve peace in the region, problems of security, development of an independent Azerbaijan and protection of human rights.” Such research and analyses carried out by the organization are meant to “democratize public consciousness” and “educate the population on the problem of creation of state based on the rule of law.” In order to meet these objectives, Dr. Yunus has lead projects on state and society, conflict and migration, young people’s and women’s issues.

However, as Dr. Yunus advanced her human rights efforts, the Azerbaijani government progressively demonstrated more backlash against her. In December of 2008, Dr. Yunus published an interview in which she accused the government of preventing the right to a fair trial. The accusation was tied to a case which involved human trafficking within the police force and government torture. As a result of the published interview, Dr. Yunus was arrested, charged with libel against the police, and fined. Another public campaign Dr. Yunus lead was against forced evictions in Baku, the host city for the European Games. According to an article written by Reuters, the campaign was situated in the midst of a wider “beautification” campaign in central Baku that cost hundreds – and possibly thousands – of homeowners and residents their homes and resulted in numerous illegal expropriations, forcible evictions, and home demolitions.” As a result, Yunus “filed numerous petitions to government agencies regarding … house expropriations and demolitions in Baku.” However, in 2011, the government once again struck back when IPD offices were bulldozed while Dr. Yunus was in Norway. Among the demolition of the IPD offices also were the remains of a women’s crisis center and anti-landmine group.

Despite the demolition of the IPD offices, Yunus continued her work. In the years that followed, she began working closely with fellow Azerbaijan activist Rasul Jafarov, compiling a list of prisoners of consciousness being held in Azerbaijan. This project was nearing completion when, in April of 2014, Yunus and her husband were about to board a flight to Qatar when they were detained, held a night in custody, and her passport confiscated. They had been suspected of espionage with Azerbaijan’s long-time rival country, Armenia. Although unable to travel outside of the country, Yunus persevered with her work and wrote a letter to the European Olympic Committee (EOC) on July 29, 2014. In 2012, the EOC had voted in favor of Azerbaijan hosting the first inaugural European Games. In her letter, Yunus questioned the premise for sponsoring an Olympic associated sports event in a country that does not adhere to Olympic principles of peace, friendship, and tolerance. “Holding the first in the history European Olympic Games in the modern Azerbaijan, not only contradicts the ideas of peace, humanity, humanism of law triumph and justice,” she bravely stated. She went on to cite countless examples of human rights abuses led by Azerbaijan’s Illham Aliyev, a man whom she referred to as a dictator. The examples included evidence of torture, human trafficking, compromised liberty and security rights, and deprivation of the right of a fair trial. Ultimately, Yunus called for a change in the decision to hold the European Olympic Games in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

Yunus concluded her letter by stating, “free thinking citizens of our country and followers of justice worldwide are starting protest campaigns against holding European Olympic Games in the authoritarian covered in blood and tears Azerbaijan.”

However, the EOC decision was never reversed. Instead, in the following days after writing the letter to the EOC, Dr. Yunus and her husband, historian Arif Yunus, were arrested by Azerbaijan’s government. They were charged with treason, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship and put on a three month pre-trial detention that has since been extended.

Throughout the ten months of her incarceration, many human rights groups have called for Yunus’ release and continue to do so. Human Rights Watch stated “Azerbaijani authorities should immediately secure the release of leading human rights defender Leyla Yunus from pretrial custody, and drop the politically motivated charges against her and her husband Arif Yunus. The authorities should also end their ongoing harassment against the couple.” Other notable organizations calling for her release include Amnesty International and Nobel Women’s Iniative. Not only do these organizations consider the charges against her to be baseless, but they also demand that proper attention be given for her health conditions. According to the International Federation for Human Rights, Dr. Yunus suffers from diabetes and hepatomegaly, which causes the liver to enlarge and deteriorate. However, reports indicate that no efforts to treat her medical conditions have been made. Instead, Dr. Yunus has experienced sight problems, lost large amounts of weight, and is routinely denied medication and special food that would help treat her conditions. In late August of 2014, Leyla wrote a letter to her husband, who is being held in a different prison, stating “they’re [government officials] so base, that in these airless cells they would also leave us starving and without medicine.”

Almost a year after defending the principles of “tolerance, [and] peace adherence” that the Olympic games were meant to be founded upon, Dr. Leyla Yunus still finds herself suffering from deteriorating health in a prison cell. Meanwhile the Azerbaijani government has continued its attempt to drown out the echoes of their repressive regime with the cheers of athletic spectators of the European Games. Unfortunately, Yunus is not alone in her struggle. Countless other journalists and activists have been targeted by the Azerbaijani regime in the past few months in an attempt to shut out all opposing voices during this time of sport.

It seems naïve to think that with the closing ceremonies of the European Games will come the opening of prison cells for these activists. Instead, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government has set a precedent that participating nations in the European Games have mistakenly condoned and one that we must all now work to rectify.

cwilliamsAbout the Author: Caitlin Williams graduated from Georgetown College, KY with degrees in Spanish and History and minors in English and Women’s Studies. She is currently pursuing a Masters in TESOL with a Specialization in TFL at Middlebury Institute of International Studies and is a Graduate Assistant at The WIP.

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