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Civil Society

Azerbaijan’s Rights Situation Deteriorating, Group Warns

WASHINGTON, May 6 2014 (IPS) - The Azerbaijan government crackdown on civil society has worsened in recent months, human rights campaigners are warning, and activists are increasingly falling victim to official efforts to limit dissent.

Human Rights Watch, the global watchdog, is calling for an end to what it refers to as harassment and oppressive tactics against the prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunusov. The group says it is now up to the international community to step up pressure on the Azerbaijan government.

“Mirgadirov and the Yunuses are the voices that the Azerbaijani government doesn’t want to be heard." -- Rachel Denber

“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,” the U.S.-based watchdog group said.

The call was particularly aimed at President Francois Hollande of France, who is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan on May 11 and 12. Campaigners are urging President Hollande to insist on seeing the Yunuses and to signal that their freedom is of significant importance to French-Azerbaijani relations.

Concern is also being expressed for the plight of Rauf Mirgadirov, an Azerbaijani journalist accused of spying for Armenia. He’s been in prison since late last month, awaiting trial.

Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the charges against Mirgadirov “bogus”.

“Mirgadirov is a man who has been for many years a strong critique of the Azerbaijani government, and the Azerbaijani authorities, who are known for having a longstanding pattern of bogus allegations, were just looking for a pretext to put him behind bars,” Denber told IPS.

“Mirgadirov and the Yunuses are the voices that the Azerbaijani government doesn’t want to be heard. But the outrageous facts of their scandalous treatment have to be exposed to the public and addressed immediately.”

Azerbaijan will soon be taking over the rotating chairmanship of Europe’s foremost human rights body, the Council of Europe. Human Rights Watch is also calling on the body’s secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, to express urgent concern about the treatment of the Yunuses and Mirgadirov, as well as other civic activists and journalists that have fallen victims of the regime in recent months.

“No government should be allowed to get away with targeting human rights defenders while it’s seeking to boost its international prestige,” Denber said in a brief.

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The warnings come just days after an annual private-sector U.S.-Azerbaijan convention took place here in Washington. There, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, called the detention of the Yunuses a “mistake”.

In follow-up comments to IPS, State Department officials expressed “deep concern” about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and said that they are “closely following the situation”. The U.S. Embassy in Baku, they said, has been in “direct touch” with the Yunuses.

“As with the Rauf Mirgadirov case, we are disturbed that the actions taken by the Azerbaijani government against Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunusov appear to be related to their participation in people-to-people efforts aimed at building confidence and facilitating a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent but unrecognised state, which is internationally seen as part of Azerbaijan. However, the area remains populated by significant numbers of ethnic Armenians.

The Yunuses’ detention occurred at about the same time as the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention took place here in Washington. The event is seen by some as a public-relations show for energy-rich Azerbaijan, with significant participation by the country’s influential oil and gas industry.

Leyla Yunus’s brother-in-law, Ramis Yunus, a long-time Washington-area resident and a columnist for a number of Azerbaijani and Russian language media outlets, was not allowed to attend the convention after his family members were detained in Azerbaijan.

Although attempts by IPS to contact Ramis Yunis proved unsuccessful by deadline, he was quoted in local media stating that he had hoped to ask U.S. legislators whether their priority lay with human rights or oil.

“They call it the ‘U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention’, organised by ‘friends of Azerbaijan’,” Ramis Yunus was quoted as saying. “I am both a U.S. citizen and an Azerbaijani citizen. But why I am treated as an enemy here?”

This year’s U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention celebrated two decades of bilateral ties following Azeri independence from the Soviet Union.

Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute, who spoke at the convention, told IPS the event’s goals are “to further the conversation between American policy-makers and Azerbaijani counter-parts.”

Vatanka continued: “Such efforts are important in introducing Azerbaijan’s agenda to policy-makers here in Washington.”

Track-two crackdown

Leyla Yunus is the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a group formed in 1995 that focused on combating politically motivated prosecutions, violence against women and unlawful house evictions. Since then, the group has also been involved in the projects targeted at rebuilding the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan around the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Leyla and Arif Yunusov were detained by Azerbaijan’s government earlier last week as they were boarding a plane to Doha, where they planned to attend an international conference. Leyla Yunus’s detention is visibly related to their work on building dialogue with Armenians and her relationship with Mirgadirov, the journalist.

Mirgadirov has been involved in track-two diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, having taken part in meetings in Armenia aimed at improving the relationship between the two countries. Leyla Yunus and the Institute for Peace and Democracy have also been involved in organising some of these projects.

Human Rights Watch cites media reports from in which the Azerbaijani officials state that the Yunuses are considered witnesses to a criminal investigation. The officials also assert that the Yunuses had previously disregarded an attempt to be served with an interrogation summons, and had not responded to phone calls asking them to appear for questioning.

Yunus’s lawyer confirmed to Human Rights Watch that a government official delivered such a summons on Apr. 24. Leyla Yunus refused, however, explaining that she had not received adequate notice.

“Azerbaijan has a long history of using bogus charges to imprison its critics, including on treason charges,” Human Rights Watch states.

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