Interview with Leyla and Arif Yunus: Azeri dissidents and human rights activists

Leyla and Arif Yunus: “Leaving the front line of your life-long fight as a refugee in your sixties is devastating”

On 14 November, Foundation Max van der Stoel had the honour to meet Azeri dissidents and human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus. It has been one year since Arif was released from prison in Azerbaijan, on 12 November 2015, and FMS asked Leyla and Arif about their story and views on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the plans for the future.

The meeting started with Leyla and Arif telling about what brought them to the Netherlands and how FMS could help them in their fight. Leyla mentioned that Arif was arrested for the first time back in 1976, and in 2014 the prison officials were even using the same handcuffs. She said that it’s horrible to leave your country after fighting for it your entire life, especially at the age of 60 with health problems. Now in Azerbaijan it is worse than during the USSR and if you leave the country, you leave the front line. Currently the couple lives in a social housing flat in Leiden and the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, supported them in their effort to come to the Netherlands.

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Current situation and challenges in Azerbaijan

Arif explained that currently Azerbaijan is struggling for transition. Out of all former USSR republics, only Ukraine and Georgia managed to change their political system – others just changed names. Leyla continued saying that European politicians don’t understand the situation. In the 2003 presidential elections in Azerbaijan, Isa Gambar from the Musavat party had to win, but the Central Election Commission said it was Ilham Aliev. There were mass protests back then against the falsification of election results, the government mobilised the anti-riot police and internal army to use violence against peaceful protesters, many of whom died, were injured or remained disabled afterwards. Former Secretary of Ideology of the Communist Party, Ramiz Mehtiev, is now the Head of Presidential Administration. In December 2013, at a press conference he told that a US Ambassador suggested to use violence against the protesters. 

But European politicians don’t see the alternative for Aliyev. They don’t understand why an English-speaking Aliyev with higher education is not a good president for Azerbaijan. In their eyes, he means stability. But in fact, the Azeri government just supports the families of its members and clans.

Furthermore, Leyla told that Europeans ignore the issue of peaceful Muslim prisoners. Aliyev called them terrorists, and it was enough to let some of them die in prison. Leyla and Arif Yunus are fighting this discrimination. According to them, if the current situation remains without attention Azerbaijan will become a second Syria and spill over to former USSR Muslim states. Arif noted that he observes a contrast in the politics of the EU towards Muslims before 2014 and now. Three years ago he predicted at one of the EU conferences that many Muslims will come to the EU – his message wasn’t taken seriously; and now he predicts that the next hot spot will be former USSR Muslim states.

According to Arif, in other former USSR states there are two camps: pro-European and pro-Russian, whereas in Azerbaijan there are three: also pro-Muslim. During the first ten years of Azerbaijan’s independence, the pro-Russian camp wasn’t respected and the pro-Muslim camp didn’t play a role either, only the pro-European camp was visible. In Azerbaijan, the European Union means good life and democracy. After the events in 2003 people saw: EU needs Azeri natural resources and will not protect them against authoritarianism, so they turned to Islam. In USSR, education was free. Now many young people in provinces can’t afford it, while mosques are offering free education. This high attendance of mosques makes Aliyev anxious.

Leyla said that seven or ten years ago it was not possible to imagine all the terrorist attacks that are happening now. If you support dictatorship in a nine-million population country, it’s going to blow up and the conflict will spill over to Dagestan, Chechnya, Caucasus and Iran. People will try to escape and there will be even more refugees.

Leyla started composing lists of prisoners of conscience in 1988 and in 1998-2000, the list was the biggest containing 714 prisoners, a majority of whom were officers. The government was afraid of military who fought in Nagorno-Karabakh. The latest list contains 160 names, more than 100 of which are peaceful believers and belong to civil society groups. Since 2013, it’s prohibited for activists of civil society to organise conferences at hotels in Azerbaijan. Critical discussions on government politics take place at apartments, as in the USSR, or in mosques.

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Leyla and Arif think that the situation in Azerbaijan can be changed through a conflict comparable by its scale to Syria. Arif said that stability in Azerbaijan is not the result of oil trade (it’s valid only for Aliyev), but of money that Azeri immigrants send from abroad, most of them from Russia (two-million Azeri diaspora). Now these money flows have stopped, due to the sanctions against Russia. In Baku, opposition is demanding democracy, while in the provinces they’re demanding jobs, salary and money. The current situation in Azerbaijan can be compared to Tunisia in 2005. Aliyev uses Nagorno-Karabakh and Islamism as excuses while bargaining with the West. Military operation in Karabakh began after the meetings with US officials at the end of March 2016: once Aliyev faced criticism of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, even before he returned to Baku, a 4-day long war started (from 1 till 4 April) in Karabakh, in which 100 army men died. Naturally, there were no more questions as regards to human rights after that.

Leyla recalled that together with Laura Bagdasarjn, chief of Armenian NGO “Region”, they created the very first common Azerbaijan-Armenia website “Public Dialog” for Armenians and Azeri’s, which represented a discussion forum for finding solutions to the conflict. It made the Azeri government angry, because they couldn’t control it. Azeri government exhibits meetings with Armenians while inviting only those, who criticize the Armenian government.

There is a dividing rule as regards to human rights activists in Azerbaijan: one activist is imprisoned, one is bribed and another one told not to touch upon certain issues. Leyla and Arif think that they were released thanks to the oil price decrease.

Leyla and Arif are convinced that EU citizens shouldn’t pay for the Azeri regime. There was a training for Azeri judges in Strasbourg recently – but they are slaves! There are no independent judges in Azerbaijan. Their own case is currently being considered by the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan, and Aliyev didn’t make his decision yet. Leyla and Arif believe that sanctions against concrete criminals in law enforcement bodies are necessary: policemen, who were beating people to death, investigators, who fabricated the cases of prisoners of conscience, and, of course, judges, who sentenced innocent people to long years in prison. It is very important that there is a black list of Azeri officials. A “Magnitsky list” [a list of officials responsible for the death of a Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009] would work in Azerbaijan.

Further - the full interview with Leyla and Arif Yunus.

Photo: Martin Schulz ALDE Communication

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