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

The Nobel Peace Prize nominee and her husband are languishing in prison while Western countries build business ties with the oil rich nation. VICE News speaks to her daughter Dinara.

by Kayleen Devlin
Nov 7 2014, 12:30pm

Images via Dinara Yunus

Azerbaijan's prominent human rights activist, Leyla Yunus, was recently nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, news that for most would be a cause for celebration. But for her daughter, Dinara, it seems only to highlight the tragedy of her mother's situation.

On July 30, Yunus was sentenced to a 3-month pre-trial detention on charges of state treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion and illegal business. Less than a week later, her husband and historian Arif Yunus received a matching sentence on similar charges.

Many human rights organizations have condemned the charges as being false and intended to silence the couple. Leyla and Arif have both been critical of the government, and have long advocated an end to the long-simmering territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. In the weeks leading up to their arrest, Leyla and another detainee, Rasul Jafarov, published a comprehensive list of Azerbaijan's political prisoners, which at the time numbered 98. Shortly after, all three were added on to that list.

Dinara Yunus has not seen her parents since their arrest, as she currently lives in the Netherlands, for which she left Azerbaijan five years ago following death threats she had received in retaliation for her parents' human rights work. When VICE News spoke to her, she appeared in low spirits. She recently discovered that her parents' pre-trial detentions have been extended by an extra four months, and in the past week her mother has been deprived of two of her lawyers.

"The government has no boundaries when it comes to my parents. My mum is a prominent human rights defender, and they want to just shut her down by putting her behind bars," she said.

Since her parents' arrest, Dinara has been campaigning hard for their release. Ahead of a meeting between Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, and Francois Hollande in Paris on October 27, Dinara wrote the French leader an open letter urging him to raise the issue her parent's imprisonment.

Leyla and Arif Yunus in happier times. Photo via Dinara Yunis

From the information she gathered from local French news and journalists, Hollande did just that. But the outcome was not what she had wished for.

"I had high hopes for the French government," she told VICE News.

"But a couple of days after Aliyev's visit to France, my mother's lawyer, Javad Javadov — who knows her case well and has been representing her from the start — was told that he could no longer represent her in court, but could only stand as a witness."

On Wednesday, it was announced that another of Leyla's lawyers, Khalid Bagirov, had been barred from representing her. According to both lawyers, the reasons for their suspensions have not been outlined by the authorities.

Added to these grievances, the health of Dinara's parents is in decline.

"I'm pretty scared about my dad because I don't know what's going on with him. He has high blood pressure and heart problems. During the first initial detention they didn't even provide him with an ambulance for the first 30 minutes after he had a mini stroke. Now he's in an isolated facility where tortures take place. Anything can happen to him and we wouldn't know about that.

"My mum's health has gotten worse since her arrest because she was deprived of medical treatment in the beginning. She has problems with her kidney stones, hepatitis and also eye problems.

"She was beaten up by a guard in prison and after that her eyes got worse. It's getting worse and worse."

This week Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe — an international advisory body promoting democracy, rights and legal standards of which Azerbaijan currently holds the rotating chairmanship — suggested that the country's human rights were on a knife-edge. In an article for The Guardian, he stated that the council has repeatedly warned Azerbaijan over its poor human rights record. So too have other countries such as the United Kingdom and United States.

Yet despite these warnings, some of Azerbaijan's most prominent political prisoners still remain behind bars, and business ties between oil rich Azerbaijan and European nations remain strong.

In a televised interview on Wednesday, Irfan Siddiq, Azerbaijan's ambassador to the UK, described relations between the two countries as "excellent." The UK is currently the largest single foreign investor in Azerbaijan, which in recent years has been the fastest growing economy in the world.

As Europe's relations with Russia decline, Azerbaijan has become a key energy alternative. In September this year, BP and partners formally gave the go-ahead to the Southern Gas Corridor — a $45 billion project aimed at delivering Azeri gas to Europe.

Dinara claims that she tried to contact BP twice about the plight of her parents, yet both requests for support have gone unanswered.

Three weeks ago, Aliyev released 80 prisoners, including 4 human rights activists — a move described by the Secretary General for the Council of Europe as a "glimmer of hope." VICE News asked Dinara if this gave her cause for optimism.

"Not really," she said.

"Those four activists signed a pardon list saying they were sorry for what they had done. My parents didn't do anything wrong. I don't understand it when Europe says that he (Aliyev) is moving forwards because he's releasing them. He's only releasing people who apply for pardoning."

According to media reports, over the summer the human rights activists who were released applied for pardoning, submitted applications to quit their activities, and announced their support of the Azerbaijani authorities.

Giorgi Gogia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, explained that much more needs to be done in order for Azerbaijan to meet its international obligations.

"Ironically, the crackdown against country's civil society intensified in the past 6 months after Azerbaijan assumed the Council of Europe's rotating chairmanship.

"Besides imprisoning critical voices, the authorities have also cut off funding by freezing bank accounts of organizations and their leaders, and Baku has adopted further restrictive legislative regulations, virtually cutting all foreign funding to Azerbaijan civil society."

Gogia added: "The international community should make it clear that it cannot be business as usual until those imprisoned on politically motivated charges are freed."

If Dinara's parents are found guilty of the charges they are accused, they will face a sentence between 15 years and life imprisonment.

"The most scary thing for me is that they will get really sick in prison and I won't see them anymore," she said.

"They're all I have. I don't have anybody else in the family and they dedicated all their lives to human rights and now they are being punished for their work. I don't feel the support from the Western governments. Europe stands for human rights, and now it's basically closing its eyes to human rights."

Follow Kayleen Devlin on Twitter: @KayleenDevlin