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'Dying Behind Bars': Human Rights Activists Jailed and Deported Before Azerbaijan's European Games

VICE News spoke to the daughter of jailed Azerbaijani activist Leyla Yunus, and international human rights groups denied entry to the country this week, right before the European Games kick off.
Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

"Get ready for the magic," reads the official tagline for the inaugural Baku 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan. But while officials and sports stars ready themselves for the new continental multi-sports event, human rights activists are being deported from the country and relatives of political prisoners are issuing desperate appeals for mercy.

A total of 50 European countries are sending around 6,000 athletes to compete in the 16-day games, modelled along the lines of the Olympics or Commonwealth Games, which Azerbaijan has spent billions of dollars preparing for. But activists have criticized the awarding of the event to the oil-rich country, which historically has a poor human rights record and over the past year has been accused of perpetrating a sharp crackdown on dissent.


Four representatives from Amnesty International were refused access to Azerbaijan on Tuesday, where they planned to launch a new report titled "Azerbaijan: The Repression Games." The group said it received a last-minute message from London's Azerbaijan embassy telling them "Azerbaijan is not in a position to welcome the Amnesty mission to Baku [Azerbaijan's capital] at the present time," adding that any visit should be postponed until after the games.

Amnesty is not the only organization to have been denied entry. Emma Hughes, an activist with London-based human rights organization Platform, was detained at Baku airport on Tuesday afternoon and told she was on a "red list" before being placed on a flight out again.

Platform has been vocally critical of the relationship between British Petroleum and Azerbaijan — which is bordered by Russia to the north, Georgia and Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south. It says Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has systematically attacked Azerbaijani civil society in the run-up to what it calls the "Oil Games," jailing journalists, lawyers, academics, and democracy activists.

In March, Human Rights Watch researcher Giorgi Gogia, who was planning to attend the trial of two human rights activists, was also refused entry and deported after landing in Heydar Aliyev International Airport.

Naomi Westland, from Amnesty International, spoke to VICE News from Georgia nine minutes after her plane was scheduled to land in Baku.


"Barring Amnesty International from entering Azerbaijan absolutely proves right all the criticism that has been leveled at the country in the run-up to the Games," she said. "What has been happening there is a really intense crackdown on freedom of expression, so there are at least 20 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan that are people who are detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression — criticizing the government or authorities in some way.

"We see now that not only are people within the country being targeted for any criticism of the government, but also those who are outside the country as well," she continued.

"[Azerbaijan has] really been trying to create a criticism-free zone around the games… They're using these games to try to launder their image through the international media so that [they appear to be] modern and progressive and dynamic when actually what's going on behind the scenes is the complete reverse of that."

Related: Human Rights Activists Remain Behind Bars as Azerbaijan Prepares to Host First European Games

Meanwhile, Dinara Yunus — the daughter of prominent jailed Azerbaijani activists Leyla and Arif Yunus — told VICE News she saw the European Games and the publicity accompanying it as the "last chance" to save her parents, but was quickly losing hope.

Leyla was arrested in July last year, shortly after she called for a public boycott of the European Games. Arif was detained shortly afterwards. Both have since been held without trial and Dinara is struggling to get information about them.


Leyla, 59, is diabetic and suffers from hepatomegaly, an enlarged liver condition which can develop into liver cirrhosis, while 60-year-old Arif has high blood pressure. Dinara told VICE News she was still begging for her parents to be released, even if only on "humanitarian" grounds, so they could receive urgent medical treatment. "If [my mother] doesn't receive it I don't know what will happen to her. I'm really worried, because when it gets to cirrhosis it can't be cured after that," she said.

Leyla has said she is also now almost blind in her left eye because she's lost so much weight that her body is rejecting artificial lens implants that were inserted after previous surgery.

Jailed human rights activists Arif and Leyla Yunus. Photo via Dinara Yunus

The couple are being held separately, with Arif in a top security prison, meaning Dinara has heard nothing about his condition.

Dinara said if a trial does go ahead it probably won't be until the end of the year and will be a closed-door trial, "so we probably won't even know what has transpired."

In the meantime, she said: "Nothing is really changing, only my mom's health condition got worrying and in a really bad state."

Reflecting on the upcoming games she said: "I don't understand how the games are going ahead when so many political prisoners are behind bars, and when my mom is basically dying behind bars."

"I hope that the European Olympic Committee will call for the release of political prisoners who really need medical treatment right now. Because treatment in prison is not possible. My mom can't be treated in prison, my dad can't be treated in prison."


Dinara, who lives in Amsterdam, added: "Human rights in the country are very bad right now, otherwise why would they ban Amnesty or Human Rights Watch?"

Related: 'Europe Is Closing Its Eyes to Human Rights' — Daughter of Jailed Azerbaijan Activist Leyla Yunus Pleads for Help

Meanwhile President Aliyev regularly issues grandiose statements about the progress Azerbaijan is making and the freedoms enjoyed in the country.

The presence of a free society and the availability of all freedoms ensure the successful development of Azerbaijan.

— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz)May 30, 2015

Today, Baku and Azerbaijan are the economic, political and cultural centers of the region.

— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz)May 30, 2015

The pronouncements appear to be a long way from reality. "Azerbaijan is ruled by an authoritarian regime characterized by intolerance for dissent and disregard for civil liberties and political rights," according to Freedom House.

Audibly frustrated, Westland said the idea that sport and politics shouldn't mix was "completely ridiculous."

"When you look at the fact that the way Azerbaijan is using these games [it] is entirely political — they want to show the world this image of themselves," she said. "It's a real shame we haven't heard anything from the European Olympic Committee which designed this event and gave it to Azerbaijan."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd