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Azerbaijan Gets Tough In Bid To Silence Its Loudest Critic

Leyla Yunus in an undated photo from a protest.
Leyla Yunus in an undated photo from a protest.

Leyla Yunus is not one to keep quiet.

In a video posted in April, the 58-year-old activist stands outside a Baku police station shouting as loudly as possible that she was detained for hours without being allowed to eat and only being allowed to use the restroom in the company of a male police officer.

"This is the way you treat me -- five men can't deal with me, with one woman," she hollers with an intensifying mix of anger and despair. "Five police officers? Was he supposed to be protecting me in the toilet while he was watching me? He was watching me! He was defending me? He is not a decent person!"

Yunus has been shouting truth to power in Azerbaijan for years, earning a reputation as the conscience of her country. But on July 30, after six hours of interrogation, the authorities in Baku charged her with treason, tax evasion, and fraud. Her husband, Arif Yunus, was also arrested and charged with treason and fraud.

The two have been remanded to pretrial detention for 90 days.

International rights advocates are concerned that both could become ill if they are mistreated while in detention. Leyla Yunus has diabetes and Arif was hospitalized with hypertension after the couple endured 24 hours of interrogation and searches in April.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service about that ordeal in May, Leyla Yunus said that, given President Ilham Aliyev's record on rights, she "was not even surprised when someone from the prosecutor's office threatened me, an old woman, by saying he would rape my husband with a bottle in front of me and then rape me in front of my husband."

"I have been hearing these stories from other people for more than 30 years," she said. "And now it happened to me."

Arif Yunus was arrested and charged with treason and fraud.
Arif Yunus was arrested and charged with treason and fraud.

The authorities seem bent on playing hard ball in this case. A lengthy statement by the prosecutor's office tries to connect the Yunuses with Armenia's secret services and accuses them of providing detailed military information relating to the simmering dispute over Azerbaijan's breakaway ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition, a scandalous, pornographic website tied to the ruling political party that is notorious for its no-holds-barred harassment campaigns against Azerbaijani journalists and activists has stepped up its campaign against Leyla Yunus. One cartoon on the site shows a scantily clad Yunus speaking on the telephone to U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar, asking him to "send over another black Congressman" because the one she's already with is impotent.

Fellow rights activist and independent journalist Shahveled Cobanoglu told RFE/RL on July 31 that the arrest of Leyla Yunus "was not unexpected for us."

"For years Leyla Yunus has been criticizing this government on human rights and political prisoners, demanding justice very loudly, telling the truth to society and the international community," Cobanoglu said. "She was not scared of the government. She never gave up. But the government doesn't either."

Leyla Yunus is the director of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, which defends political prisoners and exposes corruption and other crimes. It has been particularly active in promoting citizen's diplomacy over Karabakh by fostering exchanges between Azerbaijani and Armenian intellectuals and local leaders.

Yunus has also vocally calling for a boycott of the 2015 EuroOlympic Games, which will be held in Baku and is being actively promoted as a way of polishing Azerbaijan's international image.

The espionage charges apparently are connected with her cooperation with Armenian intellectuals in a bid to reduce tensions between the two countries. Speaking in Washington in April, Ambassador Morningstar called the Yunuses "strong proponents of the Track II process," referring to the program of confidence-building measures set up by the Minsk Group, the international forum for discussing and attempting to resolve the Karabakh conflict. He said that Baku's harassment of the couple is having "a chilling effect on any contact between Azerbaijanis and Armenians."

The fraud charges against the Yunuses stem from the fact that the Azerbaijani government has refused to register the institute as a legal nongovernmental organization. In 2011, the authorities destroyed the building that housed the institute, ostensibly as part of a development project.

The tax charges stem from grants the institute received from organizations such as National Endowment for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund, and the Open Society Institute.

Leyla Yunus's arrest comes just one day after she published a scathing open letter to President Aliyev, in which she criticized him for arresting critical bloggers and activists. "Why are you so scared," she asked him directly, urging him not to go down in history as "a tyrant and a dictator."

Azerbaijan earlier this month marked the 45th anniversary of the Aliyev dynasty. Ilham Aliyev's father, Heydar, was named head of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan by USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1969.

Speaking to RFE/RL in June, Leyla Yunus had one unambiguous message for the people of her country.

"They should not give up or accept the situation," she said. "They should fight. They should demand their rights."