BY RACHEL DENBER
Human Rights Watch
BERLIN—I had an urgent call today [this article was first published on April 29, 2014] with my friend and colleague for more than two decades, Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights defenders. She spoke with me from a security office in the Baku airport, where she and her husband, Arif, had spent the previous two hours as investigators searched their belongings. Her lawyers were barred access to her. Another team of investigators had just arrived at their home to search it.
Leyla and Arif were on the way to attend a conference in Brussels to which they were invited. Nothing should have prevented them from boarding their flight: they are neither suspects nor witnesses in any criminal case and they had not then been summoned for questioning (although in the hours after they were prevented from traveling they have been summoned).
But 10 days ago an Azerbaijani journalist—and colleague of Leyla’s—was scandalously deported from Turkey and arrested upon arrival in Baku. Rauf Mirgadirov is now facing charges of spying for Armenia, in connection with trips he made to Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey in 2008 and 2009. Mirgadirov had been involved in “second track diplomacy” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan. He participated in meetings organized by non-governmental organizations in Armenia aimed at improving people-to-people dialogue between the conflicting sides.
Some of those programs were co-organized by Leyla’s organization, the Institute for Peace and Democracy. For more than two decades, Leyla has dedicated herself to building bridges between Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies.
Mirgadirov and Leyla also have routinely and publicly criticized the dramatic crackdown on dissent that has been underway in Azerbaijan for the past two years, and which has sharpened significantly in recent months. At least 30 social media activists, journalists, political activists, and the like are now behind bars on blatantly politically motivated charges.
In 10 days French President Francois Hollande will pay an official visit to Baku, a major event in which the Azerbaijani government is seriously invested. It will closely coincide with the start of Azerbaijan’s rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, which the Azerbaijani government is using to boost its prestige on the international arena. I hope that President Hollande will insist on seeing Leyla when he is in Baku, and will make clear to his counterpart that her freedom, and that of Rauf Mirgadirov, is extremely important to him, and to French-Azeri relations.