“Azerbaijani authorities are harassing and engaging in oppressive tactics against a prominent human rights defender. The Azerbaijani government should end the harassment against rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif,” the Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Azerbaijan’s international partners, in particular fellow members of the Council of Europe, should make clear that continued harassment of human rights defenders, and the Yunuses in particular, will affect their relationships with Azerbaijan’s government.
“Leyla and Arif Yunus are among many people the Azerbaijani authorities find ‘inconvenient,’” saidRachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No government should be allowed to get away with targeting human rights defenders while it’s seeking to boost its international prestige.”
On April 28, 2014, Baku airport police prevented the couple from leaving the country, confiscated their passports, and subjected them to a 24-hour ordeal that led to Arif Yunus’s hospitalization. The prosecutor’s office subsequently designated them as witnesses in a treason investigation against Azerbaijani journalist and civic activist Rauf Mirgadirov, who was deported from Turkey on April 19 and then arrested in Baku.
The authorities should immediately return the Yunuses’ passports and stop the arbitrary interference with their freedom of movement and right to leave their country, Human Rights Watch said. There is no provision in Azerbaijani law to bar people who are designated witnesses in a criminal investigation from leaving the country.
President Francois Hollande of France is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan on May 11 and 12, and it is expected that Leyla Yunus may meet with him when he is in Baku. In 2013 the French ambassador for human rights awarded Yunus France’s Legion of Honor award (Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur) – the highest French decoration – for her courage and promotion of human rights. Hollandeshould insist on seeing the Yunuses while in Baku and make clear that their freedom, and Mirgadirov’s, is of great importance to him, and to French-Azerbaijani relations.
On May 15, Azerbaijan will take over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights body. The body’s secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, should express urgent concern about harassment of the Yunuses and the treatment of Mirgadirov, as well as the widercrackdown on civic activists and journalists under way for the past year in Azerbaijan, which has intensified in recent months.
“The harassment against the Yunuses is only the latest example of the Azerbaijani government’s efforts to muzzle critics,” Denber said. “The Council of Europe’s top leadership should step in immediately and say that this conduct is utterly inappropriate for a government that is about to take over the organization’s chairmanship.”
Azerbaijan has a long history of using bogus charges to imprison its critics, including on treason charges, Human Rights Watch said.
“The ordeal the authorities subjected the Yunuses to bears all the marks of a government getting ready to pounce on two people it has long had in its crosshairs,” Denber said. “The government needs to back off and both President Hollande and the Council of Europe need to make that clear.”