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

With 100 days left until the games begin, Amnesty International released a report detailing "a pattern of intensified harassment and intimidation of activists” by Azerbaijan’s government.
Photo by David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Wednesday marks exactly 100 days until the first official European Games begin in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Athletes from more than 50 countries are set to participate, and activists have seized on the international attention as a way to highlight abuses committed by the Azerbaijani government, as well as a crackdown on dissent in the country that has escalated over the past year.

Amnesty International released a report ahead of the games detailing what they call "a pattern of intensified harassment and intimidation of activists, journalists and human rights defenders by the Azerbaijani authorities in recent years." The human rights organization also noted that at least 22 people are currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan for "lawfully exercising their freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly."


Human rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested July 30, 2014, shortly after she publicly called for a boycott of the European Games. She was charged under several counts, including treason and tax evasion. Her husband Arif was arrested a week later. On February 18, Leyla's pretrial detention was extended until July 28. Several days later, Arif's detention was extended for a further five months.

Leyla and Arif's daughter Dinara told VICE News on Tuesday that she believes the European Games are "the only chance for my parents to get released."

Dinara, a human rights activist like her parents, received political asylum from the Netherlands in 2009 and now lives in Amsterdam. She said the Azerbaijani government has effectively dismantled her family — she can't speak to her parents, and they are forbidden from talking to each other.

Since last summer, Dinara said, "nothing has really changed, it's the same old. They're behind bars and they'll still be behind bars for (at least) a year."

Related: 'Europe is closing its eyes to human rights' — daughter of jailed Azerbaijan activist Leyla Yunus pleads for help.

Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Iran and Russia on the Caspian Sea, has particularly restrictive laws on NGOs. Many of the activists that are currently incarcerated were arrested because of accusations related to the NGOs they run or have founded, on charges that Amnesty called "trumped up."


In addition to Leyla and Arif Yunus, the country's high-profile detainees include Rasul Jafarov, founder of an NGO called Human Rights Club, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and Intigam Aliyev, the head of Azerbaijan's Legal Education Society. Others, including human rights defender Emin Huseynov, have been forced to go into hiding, according to Amnesty International's report.

'The picture that we have at present is basically a shutting down of civil society. No one is left that dares to speak out or is free to do so.'

Prison conditions are tough. According to Dinara, her mother — a diabetic with a liver condition — has been denied some of her prescribed food. "My dad still has high blood pressure and doesn't sleep well at night," she added. "That's all I hear about dad."

Leyla wrote an open letter to her husband one month into their detention. "I know that you are completely without communication, without a change of clothes and medicine," she said. "I am also without food and medicine… We just never would have predicted that the 21st century would bring the repression of the 1930s."

Dinara said her awareness of her parents' treatment emphasizes the dichotomy between the "principles" of the European Games, and the "real situation in Azerbaijan." She grasps desperately for any information about her family, while "the president of the European Olympic Committee is constantly on TV saying how exciting it is."


Azerbaijan's government says it will cover the costs of accommodation and travel for athletes from all 50 participating countries. The country has also invested a reported $10 billion in venues and infrastructure in preparation for June's event.

Natalia Nozadze, the Amnesty International researcher who wrote Wednesday's report, told VICE News that she had noticed big changes in Azerbaijan over the past year. "No one is still there to speak out," she said. "Right now when you drive through the streets of Baku you see more than half of the city renovated. They're trying to redefine themselves as a modern nation but unfortunately that modern redesign doesn't include much space for discourse and for human rights."

Dinara likewise lamented the lack of freedom of expression in her homeland. "The situation is only getting worse in Azerbaijan and silent diplomacy isn't improving it," she said.

"Because it's the first time there's European Games they should start it with a positive note, not with a negative thing. They should ask and demand the release of political prisoners before they go there.

"My parents are simply dying behind bars," she added. "I don't know what's going to happen to them… It will be less and less possible to release them. They will be kept until the end of 2015 behind bars, and then a trial will take place, and then they will be just sentenced, probably from 15 [years] to life. And that's pretty scary for me."


British Petroleum has signed a deal to sponsor the Baku 2015 European Games, a move Dinara questioned. "As a big institution, BP could have also raised the issue of political prisoners," she said.

Beginning last May, Azerbaijan chaired the Council of Europe for six months. Dinara believes the Council and other European institutions should be more vocal in their calls for reform. "I think Europe hasn't done much," she said. "They've been more silent,"

Dinara said if her parents are released, her first move will be to try and get them out of the country as fast as possible. "They've dedicated 30 years of their lives to human rights, so they are pretty old, now it's time to think about yourself."

Related: Azerbaijan is arming up amid territorial dispute with Armenia.

Nozadze's research for Amnesty International has been impacted by the fact that the local activists she used to contact for information are no longer available. "Now those people are behind bars or forced to leave the country because of threats," she said. "The picture that we have at present is basically a shutting down of civil society. No one is left that dares to speak out or is free to do so."

According to Nozadze, Amnesty isn't calling for a boycott of the games, but they do hope to take advantage of the international attention to highlight injustice in the country.

She suspects the government escalated its crackdown on dissenters for a number of reasons. "One could be that the international attention was directed towards Russia and Ukraine," Nozadze said, adding that another could be that they wanted to avoid the event being hijacked by activists to highlight domestic abuses, as had been done during the 2012 Eurovision.


"We don't call for sanctions, but what we ask for is that if they don't make human rights a priority, at least they make it as important," Nozadze said. She called the games a chance for European countries to promote their values, including freedom and democracy.

Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Heydar Aliyev led the country between 1993 and 2003, and was succeeded as president by his son Ilham. In 2009, the country held a referendum to allow Ilham to run for a third term. A US embassy diplomatic cable — leaked in 2010 — compared him to a mafia crime boss.

Aliyev regularly boats on Twitter about the prosperity of his oil-rich nation. The country currently sponsors the Spanish football club Atletico Madrid. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under fire for his involvement in promoting Azerbaijan.

There is unity between the people and the government in Azerbaijan and all our initiatives are supported by the people.

— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz)January 29, 2015

Economic power enables us to speak our word on the political scene without fear of anyone and protect our national interests.

— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz)January 29, 2015

The official Baku 2015 European Games website describes Azerbaijan as "a land of plentiful natural resources, centuries-old culture, and deeply-engrained hospitality." It also boasts about Baku's "prominent thinkers," and states that the capital city is somewhere where "academic and artistic curiosity is encouraged."

Azerbaijan was ranked at 162 globally on the 2015 freedom of press index. Reporters Without Borders described the country as "Europe's biggest prison for news providers."

Ismayilova, the imprisoned investigative journalist, penned a letter from prison to the Washington Post. She claimed she had been kept in solitary confinement and denied visits by her family. "'Why am I here?' is a question that everyone in prison asks themselves, no matter the crime," she wrote. "Corruption is the reason I am in my prison, but the regime's corruption, not mine. The only way to prove oppressive regimes wrong is to continue exposing corruption, and I have promised more investigations for 2015. Yes, there is a price to pay, but it is worth it."

The journalist added that, "In a very small, yet strategic and potentially volatile country bordering Russia and Iran, 100 of its best and brightest, its most aware, active and internationally engaged citizens have been removed from public life for the crime of seeking decency and fair play."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd