’Azerbaijan is turning into a dictatorship – we shouldn’t fall for its caviar diplomacy’

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Op-ed by FIDH Honorary President Souhayr Belhassen published in The Guardian on August 13, 2015.

After a lifetime fighting for human rights, Leyla and Arif Yunus face a decade in jail. How can Europe turn a blind eye, asks Souhayr Belhassen?

Almost two months to the day since the opulent opening ceremony of the European Games in Baku, the trial of human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus is expected to end tomorrow with lengthy sentences for both.

Charged with large-scale fraud, forgery, tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship, Leyla Yunus, the director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, faces up to 11 years in jail. Her husband Arif Yunus, accused of large-scale fraud, faces up to nine.

Internationally recognised for their work defending human rights, the verdict in the trial against the Yunuses will sound the death knell for the country’s once-vibrant civil society. That same civil society, which powerfully protested the decision to hold the Eurovision Song contest in Baku in 2012, is now in tatters.

For more than a decade Azerbaijan has made shameless use of caviar diplomacy to charm European governments, its most important oil and gas clients. In return Europe has turned a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s human rights violations. In the name of Leyla and Arif Yunus and all Azerbaijani democracy campaigners, the climate of impunity must end now.

Before her arrest Leyla Yunus had been working on a project documenting political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The Yunuses were also tireless advocates for peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, who are currently locked in conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This work that would later result in charges of state treason, to be decided in a future trial.

The couple were first arrested in April 2014. Their passports were confiscated, their home raided and their bank accounts frozen. Arif Yunus’s health was already fragile and the shock sent him to hospital.

This first arrest presaged a massive crackdown by the regime of President Ihan Aliyev, which set out to quash all dissent ahead of the 2015 European Games. Organisations’ bank accounts were frozen, their doors permanently shut, their employees arrested en masse.

On 30 July 2014 the Yunuses were interrogated for a second time and detained in separate prisons. They were held illegally for a year, awaiting trial. Throughout their detention, they have been denied crucial medical attention.

Today, dozens of civil society campaigners face similar fates. Held arbitrarily and charged with similarly spurious charges, many have already received long prison sentences. Among them are Rasul Jafarov, founder of the Sing for Democracy and Sport for Rights campaigns, and Intigam Aliyev, a prominent human rights lawyer.

Much to the chagrin of the Azerbaijan government, hosting the European Games this summer served above all to shed light on the country’s ongoing human rights violations.

Since the closing ceremony on 29 June, the spiral of repression has escalated as the regime takes its revenge on its critics. Last weekend Rasim Aliyev, head of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety – an organisation that was shut down by the government a year ago, was allegedly beaten to death by the family of a footballer he had criticised on Facebook. Whoever is responsible for Rasim’s death, it is clear that critics of the regime are being thrown to the wolves.

Azerbaijan is fast becoming a full-blown dictatorship in the style of its fellow former soviet republics Belarus and Uzbekistan.

On 13 August, the trial of Leyla and Arif Yunus is expected to come to a close, with the verdict to follow shortly thereafter. If the trials of Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov are any indication, we can expect that they will be ordered to spend the greater part of the next decade in jail. Ramiz Mammadov, Leyla Yunus’s lawyer, could find only one word to describe the situation: “Terrible.”

The courts in Azerbaijan have demonstrated an utter disregard for the international standards of a fair trial. The Yunuses had to sit in a glass cage inside the courtroom rather than next to their lawyers, as is their right.

Diplomats, journalists, and NGOs have been banned from proceedings and no cameras or recording devices are permitted.

In June, while the Games were in full swing, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), took an important first step to condemning the regime, approving a landmark resolution calling on Azerbaijan to “put an end to systemic repression of human rights defenders, the media and those critical of the government”. While this was a positive sign that some in Europe had had enough, it will not suffice.

Individual European governments must urgently and forcefully speak out against President Aliyev’s campaign of repression. European governments must set clear conditions for the continuation of relations with Azerbaijan: Leyla and Arif Yunus and all human rights defenders and political prisoners must be freed immediately, NGO laws amended, bank accounts of NGOs and activists unfrozen. Civil society actors must be allowed to work without constraints or fear of retribution. The protection of human, civil and political rights must come before economic and geopolitical interests.

Souhayr Belhassen visited Azerbaijan in January 2015 as part of a fact-finding mission by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. Read the resulting report.

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