The family of a woman who once acted as a personal interpreter for Margaret Thatcher are calling on the oil company BP and the British Government to intervene and secure her release from jail in Azerbaijan, The Telegraph reports.
Leyla Yunus, 58, a leading human rights campaigner, was arrested in July on what are widely seen as trumped up charges of treason and fraud. Her husband, Arif, 59, an academic, was thrown behind bars a few days later.
“Leyla has been beaten and dragged by her hair by a prison guard and she is being subjected to constant psychological abuse,” Ramis Yunus, her brother-in-law, told The Telegraph.
“I urge BP and the British Government to speak out and pressure the government of Azerbaijan into releasing all political prisoners, including Leyla and my brother,” he added.
Mr Yunus said he was disappointed that European governments were “closing their eyes” to the plight of his relatives. “I’m sure that Margaret Thatcher would have condemned the arrest of Leyla and Arif Yunus, whom she knew personally, and she would have found both political and economic means to pressure the government of Azerbaijan to let them go.”
Mrs Yunus and her husband were jailed in revenge for her publishing a list of political prisoners, now numbering 98, and organizing a peace initiative with Azerbaijan’s neighbor and traditional foe, Armenia, according to their relatives and colleagues.
She was also targeted for helping families whose homes were destroyed to make way for buildings for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, the capital.
Human Rights Watch describes the charges against Mr and Mrs Yunus as “completely bogus, and intended to silence them”. The Azerbaijan government denies the charges are politically motivated.
Mrs Yunus is a former deputy defense minister and skilled linguist who met Lady Thatcher when she visited Baku in 1992.
Lady Thatcher, who had resigned as Prime Minister two years earlier, travelled to newly-independent Azerbaijan to hand the Azeris two cheques worth $30m on behalf of BP that was a down payment on Caspian oilfields. That agreement paved the way for the “Contract of the Century” signed in 1994, which saw BP take the lead in a consortium extracting hydrocarbons from the seabed.
During Lady Thatcher’s visit, Mrs Yunus was given the role of escorting her, helping translate and explaining the war that was then raging in Nagorno-Karabakh. “They were both strong women and they got on well,” said her brother-in-law.
Mrs Yunus, who is now being held in a pretrial detention centre, has diabetes, hepatitis and eye problems that her family believe could be exacerbated in custody. Her lawyers say she has been subjected to verbal and physical abuse by a senior guard and a fellow inmate in her cell.
Arif Yunus, who suffered a stroke earlier this year, is in detention at a facility run by the national security ministry, which is notorious for torture of inmates.