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Azerbaijani Activist's Detention Raises Another Red Flag In Baku

Leyla Yunus was prevented from boarding a flight to Doha.
Leyla Yunus was prevented from boarding a flight to Doha.
International rights watchdogs have begun weighing in on a flight ban and other harassment targeting a prominent Azerbaijani rights activist in the latest signs of a creeping crackdown that has alarmed Western governments and threatens to further isolate Baku.

The groups are urging an international outcry over the detention of Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, after they were prevented from boarding a flight to Doha late on April 28.

Authorities also reportedly seized a computer, documents, and other personal effects from their luggage and tried to raid the Yunuses' home overnight over the couple's objections that they produce a warrant.

Both Yunus's home and office in Baku were searched on April 29.

Yunus told journalists outside her apartment early on April 29 that the Azerbaijani authorities "don't even explain to us what we are accused of."

"They didn't show us any documents. They didn't say why they detained us. They didn't explain why they didn't let us leave the country," she added. "They didn't tell us why they carried out a search from 11 [p.m.] to 3 [a.m. local time] that was extremely thorough. They took away a computer, some personal papers, letters from my daughter, newspapers. They took everything."
Azerbaijani Rights Advocate Detained In Baku
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(WATCH: Azerbaijani Rights Advocate Detained In Baku)

Arif Yunus was said to have taken ill, preventing a search of the apartment overnight. But authorities were back at their home on April 29 demanding to search the premises, according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

It is the second case this month involving a vocal critic of President Ilham Aliyev's administration whose outspokenness has garnered significant attention abroad.

Journalist Rauf Mirkadirov was repatriated from Turkey on April 19 and immediately arrested at Baku airport on spying charges that the United States called "troubling."
Live Blog: Yunus's Detention (In Azeri)

Aliyev's regime has been widely accused of systematic rights abuses, but the detentions come at a particularly awkward time for Baku and the international community. Azerbaijan is poised to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, a European human-rights monitoring body, in May.

Mirkadirov, a commentator for the Russian-language daily "Zerkalo" and a Turkey resident for three years, has been accused of divulging state secrets to arch foe Armenia. Yunus, who founded the Baku-based Peace and Democracy Institute, has spent years on efforts to promote direct ties between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. They have reportedly worked together in the past.

There have been suggestions, including recently by Yunus, that the two cases are related.

She told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service last week, following Mirkadirov's arrest, that she believed her own arrest was imminent -- on whatever charges proved expedient.

"For many years, [Azerbaijani authorities] have been trying to arrest me. They destroyed my house when I tried to sue Interior Minister Ramil Usubov," Yunus told RFE/RL. "Now they arrest anyone they want. It would be funny to arrest me on drug charges. So they will do it for treason, since these cases are considered behind closed doors. And they will say on state TV that I was working for the Armenians for the last 30 years. The plan is to arrest many human rights activists as a group of spies. The goal is to purge anyone who thinks differently. They don't want anyone who can speak about political prisoners."

Yunus's lawyer, Khalid Bagirov, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that his client's detention was likely related to the Mirkadirov case. Bagirov was initially being denied access to Yunus.

Tom Malinowski, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that Yunus's case is "very troubling" and that the United States will convey that message to the authorities in Baku.

"When you crack down on civil society, when you crack down on people who are expressing a peaceful criticism of government policies," Malinowski said, "you have less peace in your society."

"This is not the way to achieve stability," he added.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on April 29 said "nothing should have prevented" the Yunuses from traveling abroad.

HRW's deputy director for the region, Rachel Denber, added the Yunuses' case to a growing list of individuals "now behind bars on blatantly politically motivated charges."

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee issued a statement suggesting the authorities' actions "may be connected to [the Yunuses'] long-term engagement for dialogue between Azerbaijanis and Armenians."

Citing that work, the group said: "We urge all states and international organizations to loudly protest the detention of Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus and the arrest of Rauf Mirgadirov. Without dialogue, there will never be peace. Criminalizing it is in itself a crime."

Yunus recently was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor of France for her human rights work and Germany's Theodor Haecker prize for international rights advocacy in May 2013.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned Azerbaijan's arrest of Mirkadirov, demanding that authorities there "drop these trumped-up charges and stop abusing the law to silence independent reporting on the country."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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