Saturday, August 01, 2015

Another Opposition Activist In Azerbaijan Gets Lengthy Prison Term

Azerbaijani oppositionist Asif Yusifli (file photo)

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- A high-ranking member of Azerbaijan's opposition Popular Front Party has been sent to jail.

The Baku Court for Serious Crimes found Asif Yusifli guilty of fraud and forgery on July 30 and sentenced him to 7 1/2 years in jail the same day.

Yusifli's co-defendant, Rafiq Huseynov, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in jail on the same charges.

Yusifli, who was arrested in November, pleaded not guilty and called the case against him a retaliation by the authorities for his political and rights activities.

International and domestic human rights organizations, as well as EU and U.S. officials have expressed deep concern about Azerbaijan's crackdown on oppositionists, rights activists, and journalists in recent years.

Baku denies accusations saying there are no political prisoners in the country.

Jailed Azeri Reporter Ismayilova Wins Press Freedom Award

Khadija Ismayilova

The U.S. National Press Club presented its highest press freedom prize to jailed Azeri investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova on July 29.

Ismayilova, who is a contributor to RFE/RL, has been held in pretrial detention in Baku for 234 days on charges many observers say were motivated by her investigations into high-level corruption involving Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

At a first hearing in Ismayilova's case on July 24, an Azerbaijani judge rejected motions to dismiss charges of tax evasion and embezzlement and grant Ismayilova house arrest as a substitute for pretrial detention. Ismayilova faces a possible prison sentence of 19 years.
“Khadija is in prison because of her journalism," said RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic, who accepted the award on Ismayilova’s behalf.

"This award is an acknowledgement of her courage and her convictions, but it is also a call to all of us here tonight to condemn her imprisonment and demand her freedom.”
Other jailed reporters receiving the club's John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award this year were Syrian correspondent Austin Tice and Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post's Tehran correspondent.

Lawyers Say Savchenko Has Alibi

Nadia Savchenko's trial starts on July 30

The lawyers of jailed Ukrainian pilot and parliament member Nadia Savchenko said on July 28 that they have proof she was already captive when the two Russian journalists she is accused of killing died in shelling. 

Savchenko is accused of direct participation in the killing of two Russian reporters who died last year while covering the conflict in Ukraine. She has also been charged with attempted murder and illegally entering Russian territory.

Preliminary hearings are scheduled for July 30 in Russia's Rostov region.

Savchenko’s lawyer Ilya Novikov said at a news conference in Kyiv that he had phone billing data that shows she was already the prisoner for pro-Russian separatists when the journalists were killed. 

However, he expressed doubt about the fairness of her trial.

Savchenko says she was illegally brought into Russia after being abducted by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. 

Based on reporting by Reuters 

Video Baku Court Refuses To Release Arif Yunus To House Arrest

Azerbaijani rights activists Leyla Yunus (left) and her husband Arif Yunus. (file photo)

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

A Baku court has refused a motion by defense lawyers for jailed Azerbaijani human rights activist Layla Yunus and her husband Arif to release the ailing Arif to house arrest.

The refusal came as the Yunuses appeared in court on July 27 for the first day of their trial on charges of economic crimes -- including tax evasion, fraud, and illegal business activities -- and treason.

The Yunuses, who deny guilt, say the charges against them are politically motivated.

The court also rejected a defense motion to exclude the names of some witnesses from the trial proceedings.

Layla Yunus accused the prosecutor and witnesses of telling lies and said she did not know and had never seen some of those introduced as witnesses against the couple.

She also called the accusations against her husband "nonsense" and protested to the judge that she had not been allowed to speak at the couple's preliminary hearing on July 15, when the court rejected a motion by defense lawyers to dismiss the case.

Representatives of foreign diplomatic missions, human rights activists, and journalists gathered outside the courthouse for the start of the trial but most were not admitted into the building. RFE/RL correspondents on the scene report that the only journalists allowed into the courtroom were those from pro-government outlets.

Layla Yunus, who has been held in pretrial detention since her arrest in July last year, is the founding director of the unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku and a vocal critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record. She also has been actively involved for years in people-to-people diplomacy with Armenian rights activists, winning several international prizes and honors for her human rights activities.

Journalists Barred From Trial Of Azerbaijani Rights Activistsi
July 27, 2015
As the trial of two human rights defenders, Leyla and Arif Yunus, began in Baku, most journalists and representatives of diplomatic missions were barred from entering the courtroom, where only pro-government reporters were admitted. Rights groups and supporters of the couple say their detention is the result of their activist work.

WATCH: Journalists Barred From Trial Of Azerbaijani Rights Activists

Arif Yunus has been held separately from his wife since his arrest in August. He is a well-known historian and researcher of conflicts across the Caucasus, focusing mainly on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian-populated region which Armenian-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.

The United States and European Union, as well as international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights, have condemned the incarceration of the couple and demanded their immediate release.

Both the Yunuses are reportedly in ill health.

During a break in the preliminary hearing on July 15, Layla told reporters that Arif, 60, has a head tumor that could be cancerous but is being denied medical attention in jail. She was then ordered to keep away from the media in the courtroom.

The couple's daughter, Dinara, said in June that her mother, 59, has diabetes and Hepatitis C and that the health of both her parents had gotten worse during their incarceration.

Yunus, who has published several open letters to her husband since their detention, has expressed mounting fear that she and her spouse, who also suffers from heart disease, may not live to see their release.

In October 2014 she wrote: "I clearly understand their goal is not just destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it."

In March 2015 Yunus predicted that she and her husband will face "circus" trials later this year and receive 10-15 year sentences.

The Yunuses are among several activists, journalists, and government critics who are behind bars in Azerbaijan, where rights groups say President Ilham Aliyev has assiduously pursued a campaign to silence dissent.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on material from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku


Video Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova Asserts Innocence In First Day of Trial

Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom As Ismayilova's Trial Beginsi
July 24, 2015
Supporters of journalist Khadija Ismayilova chanted her name outside a courtroom in the Azerbaijani capital on the first day of her trial on charges including embezzlement and tax evasion. International rights groups have condemned Ismayilova's detention as politically motivated retaliation for her reporting on official corruption.
WATCH: Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom As Ismayilova's Trial Begins

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 24.07.2015 13:30


Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova asserted her innocence during the first day of her trial in Baku, saying the charges against her of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power are politically motivated.
Ismayilova, who reported extensively on official corruption in Azerbaijan as an RFE/RL contributor, was ordered to return to court on August 7.
The jailed investigative reporter told the court during the preliminary hearing on June 24 that "[Azerbijani President] Ilham Aliyev has arrested me because of personal hostility" and "to hinder my journalistic activity."
Her lawyer filed motions during the hearing for dismissal of the case, substitution of pretrial detention with home arrest, and exclusion of some witnesses' names from the witness list.
None of those defense motions was upheld.

The court left unresolved another defense motion to allow a lawyer for RFE/RL to participate in the trial in order to defend Ismayilova against accusations derived from a criminal case launched in December against RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq.
The accusations against the radio, including illegal broadcasting and tax evasion, stem from an ongoing investigation by authorities of Radio Azadliq in connection with local laws on foreign funding of NGOs.

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

Police barred dozens of activists, journalists, and some members of the diplomatic corps from entering the court building to witness the proceedings.

A representative of the French Embassy told correspondents on the scene that he was denied entry despite rules against excluding diplomats.

Supporters, who chanted Ismayilova's name outside the court building as the trial began, claimed the hearing was conducted in a small room filled with people unrelated to her case in order to keep observers out.

Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom As Ismayilova's Trial Beginsi
July 24, 2015
Supporters of journalist Khadija Ismayilova chanted her name outside a courtroom in the Azerbaijani capital on the first day of her trial on charges including embezzlement and tax evasion. International rights groups have condemned Ismayilova's detention as politically motivated retaliation for her reporting on official corruption.

WATCH: Activists Barred From Baku Courtroom  

The trial comes after seven months of pretrial detention for Ismayilova. During that time international rights groups have repeatedly called for her release.

ALSO READ: The Reporting That Jailed Khadija

Amnesty International has called Ismayilova a "prisoner of conscience" and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has termed the charges against her retaliation for her journalistic activity.

Ismayilova's exposés, broadcast by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq, were widely heard within the country but publicly ignored by officials, who refused to comment on their contents.

Her work irked authorities by focusing on apparent nepotism within the highest levels of the ruling establishment, including the presidential family.

MORE: Khadija Live Blog (In Azeri)

Her investigations included revealing in 2010 that the government's privatization of many of the state airline AZAL's service branches bypassed the committee tasked with assuring a transparent competition. She discovered that the secretive privatization process awarded a key bank that had belonged to AZAL to new owners who included Aliyev's daughter, Arzu Aliyeva.
Ismayilova was repeatedly harassed and warned to abandon her work, first by unknown parties who sought to blackmail her over pictures of her intimate life that were made by a camera secretly planted in her bedroom.
She was later summoned by judicial authorities on suspicion of leaking state secrets to the United States and, when she continued working, was finally arrested and jailed on December 5. She was first charged with inciting a former colleague to commit suicide. When those charges were subsequently withdrawn by her accuser, they were supplemented by the current charges of illegal financial activities.

The man who had accused Ismayilova of inciting him to suicide, Tural Mustafayev, said at the hearing on July 24 that he had "defamed" her under pressure from law-enforcement agencies. However, a defense motion for the court to now dismiss his charge against Ismayilova was refused.
Ali Karimli, head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL at the hearing July 24 that the government is showing a "malicious" attitude in trying Ismayilova, including in filling the courtroom to exclude activists and journalists.

"This special attitude is connected with Khadija Ismayilova's journalistic investigations into the business deals of Ilham Aliyev and his family members," Karimli said.
Many international observers view Ismayilova's arrest and trial as evidence of a growing repression of free speech in Azerbaijan.
A group of 16 U.S. senators sent a letter to Aliyev earlier this month expressing concern over a "systematic crackdown on human rights and independent civil society." They called on him to "provide a more tolerant environment" and urged him to release Ismayilova.
RFE/RL's co-CEO and editor in chief, Nenad Pejic, has called her detention "the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan."

Azerbaijani authorities raided the RFE/RL bureau in Baku on December 26 without explanation and sealed it shut. They confiscated company documents and equipment without due process, detained bureau staff without legal representation, and later expelled the bureau's legal counsel from court proceedings and placed arbitrary bans restricting the travel of some employees.

RFE/RL closed its still sealed Baku bureau in May but continues to broadcast to Azerbaijan from its headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on material from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku


HRW Denounces ‘Climate Of Fear’ For LGBT People In Kazakhstan


A leading human rights group has criticized Kazakhstan for failing to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from violence, discrimination, and abuse.

In a report issued on July 23, Human Rights Watch said LGBT people in Kazakhstan live in "an intensified climate of fear." 

Kyle Knight, LGBT rights researcher at the New York-based group and author of the report, said such a climate “is stoked both by the abuses and discrimination they face directly, as well as abuse and discrimination when they try to report rights violations to authorities.” 

“The Kazakh government should clearly state its support for the human rights of LGBT people, ensure that no discriminatory legislation is passed into law, and take immediate steps to tackle homophobia,” he added.

The report comes as the International Olympic Committee is to vote on July 31 to award the 2022 Winter Olympics either to Almaty or Beijing.

UN Petition Seeks To Win Tehran Reporter's Release


The Washington Post filed an urgent petition July 22 with the United Nations for the release of the newspaper's jailed Tehran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, on the anniversary of his arrest in Iran.

The reporter faces 10 to 20 years in prison if convicted in Iran on charges of espionage and anti-government propaganda -- charges which he and his family vehemently deny.

"Every aspect of this case - his incarceration, his trial, the conditions of his imprisonment - has been a disgraceful violation of
human rights. And it violates common decency," Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

The United Nations was "aware" of the petition filed by the paper, said UN spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci. She noted that any further action will come from the UN Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions in Geneva. 

The office's investigations usually give the country involved 60 days to respond, although the group also has an "urgent action" procedure intended to speed up the process. It was not known if that would be applied in this case.

The Post's lawyers said Iran has been responsive to about a third of the cases filed with the working group in the past decade. Jay Kennedy, the newspaper's general counsel, said the tactic hadn't been tried sooner because "we never expected his detention to last this long."

Rezaian's supporters say there is no available evidence against him.

"Release Jason to his family," National Press Club President John Hughes said. "As a Post reporter Jason is part of the Washington journalism community. He is like family to us."

The Post's general counsel Jay Kennedy said that Rezaian has been denied due process, with Iranian authorities failing to inform the prisoner of the charges against him, waiting 10 months to bring him to trial, and closing the trial to the public.

Rezaian has faced three closed-door hearings. It's unclear when a fourth — and likely final — hearing will be held, or when a verdict will be reached. The psychological strain of his prolonged imprisonment has caused Rezaian to lose 50 pounds.

Rezaian's brother, Ali, said that the Iranian nuclear talks, which had been ongoing throughout Jason Rezaian's detention, had given the family hope that his release was imminent. But since the final nuclear agreement was announced on July 14, the family has become desperate.

U.S. officials said they insisted on keeping the nuclear talks separate from discussions about Rezaian and other U.S. prisoners held in Iran in case the negotiations faltered -- a strategy endorsed by Rezaian's family.

Even so, Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. officials raised the issue of captive Americans with Iran persistently during the nuclear deliberations.

Rezaian's brother called on Iran to follow its own laws and international norms and release his brother as soon as possible.

"We've watched Iran ignore their own laws and demonstrate they are not a nation of laws, as they so disingenuously claim to be," he said.

With reporting by AP and dpa

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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