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Can The Sakharov Prize Save Leyla Yunus?


Leyla Yunus has been in pretrial detention for nearly three months. She says she has been beaten and denied medical care for diabetes and other ailments.

On October 21, the European Parliament will announce the 17th annual Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, a distinction that comes with a 50,000 euro award ($64,000) and entry to a select club of some of the world's most respected human rights defenders.

In the case of Leyla Yunus, one of this year's finalists, the prize holds another potential benefit: pressure on the Azerbaijani court system, which is set this week to determine if the 58-year old activist will remain behind bars to face trial on charges -- dismissed by supporters as bogus -- of treason and espionage.

Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy and an outspoken government critic, has already spent nearly three months in pretrial detention, where she complained of being physically beaten and denied medical care for diabetes and other ailments.

On October 20, authorities appeared to ratchet up the pressure by abruptly transferring Yunus to a detention facility run by the Ministry of National Security, which is notorious for use of torture and other coercive tactics. Yunus's 59-year-old husband, Arif -- a well-known historian and activist in his own right -- is being held in the same facility on charges similar to hers.

The unexpected transfer is seen as an attempt to further isolate Yunus, and comes just days before a court hearing on whether to extend her pretrial detention. The remand hearing is scheduled to be held this week, although an exact date has not been set.

By law, Security Ministry officials are required to explain the need for a transfer before any move is made. But lawyer Alayif Hasanov told RFE/RL that he received no prior notification about the relocation.

"The officials are meant to provide both us and the person being transferred with an explanation for the transfer and whether it's a matter of urgency," Hasanov said. "Based on that explanation, we can determine how reasonable or urgent the transfer was. But there's been no explanation."

Arif Yunus
Arif Yunus

Yunus's legal team expressed concern that the ministry's tighter restrictions on food and medicine deliveries may further compromise Yunus's health. Lawyer Khalid Bagirov expressed cautious hope that a positive announcement from the European Parliament could bring pressure to bear on authorities in Baku.

"The Sakharov Prize is one of the most serious prizes in Europe, but I can't say how seriously the Azerbaijani government views it," he said. "I want to hope that if she's awarded the Sakharov Prize, Leyla Yunus will be set free."

'Track Two' Diplomacy

Yunus, who has taken on corruption, domestic violence, and unlawful evictions over the course of her career, has run afoul of the Azerbaijani government more than once. But her current charges -- linked to her work promoting so-called "track two" diplomacy, or person-to-person contact, between Azerbaijan and archenemy Armenia -- are especially grave, and could carry a sentence of 15 years to life if Yunus is convicted.

The Yunuses' arrests come amid a sweeping crackdown in Azerbaijan against journalists, lawyers, and other government critics. In recent months, the oil-rich regime of President Ilham Aliyev has arrested at least 11 activists on political charges despite assuming the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the European region's foremost human rights body, in May.

Advocacy groups have slammed the government case against the Yunuses. In an October 18 press release, Human Rights Watch called on authorities to immediately release the couple and drop the charges against them, denouncing the case as "a travesty and a clear attempt by the Azerbaijan government to silence them with bogus charges."

Yunus, who has published several open letters to her husband since their detention, has written passionately about the government's campaign, and has expressed mounting fear that she and her husband, who suffers from heart disease, may not live to see their release.

In her latest letter, published the same day as her transfer, 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 other words, our work received the highest mark on the highest scale."

The international community has traditionally offered only mild criticism of Baku's rights record, prompting allegations that Azerbaijan is using its energy riches to peddle influence abroad.

Notable exceptions include the European Court of Human Rights, which on October 11 granted priority status to the Yunuses' case against their arrest, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which on October 15 ordered Azerbaijan to undergo a review of its civil society standards by the start of 2015.

The couple's daughter, Dinara, who has lived in Amsterdam since receiving political asylum in the Netherlands, says the Sakharov Prize could help provide additional leverage against the Aliyev regime.

"It might have an influence on her case, and it would also show the world what's really going on in Azerbaijan and how many political prisoners there are," she says. "I'm afraid that if she doesn't win, she won't have that protection from the Europarliament. The Sakharov Prize would give her protection in front of the Azeri government."

Yunus, who was nominated for the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament's Green Party faction, is considered a dark horse in the race, where Ukraine's Euromaidan protest movement and Denis Mukwege, a doctor crusading against rape in the Congo, have been backed by larger factions.

The fates of past Sakharov laureates, however, indicate that the prize is not always accompanied by better conditions at home. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, received the Sakharov Prize in 1990 but was only able to collect the award after her release from house arrest 20 years later.

Other Sakharov prize-winners continue to face oppression, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and the Russian rights group Memorial -- founded and led by Sakharov himself -- which is facing current efforts by the Justice Ministry to liquidate its operations.

Ulrike Lunacek, who heads Austria's Green Party members in the European Parliament, says even in situations where individuals and organizations remain under duress, the Sakharov Prize can act as a lasting form of moral support. But she acknowledges the award holds extra urgency for nominees, like Yunus, who are in immediate physical danger.

"With Leyla Yunus, we have been arguing that the Sakharov Prize can also save lives," says Lunacek. "She is in bad health because of the situation she is facing in prison, so I really do hope that she will get the award. And if not, the European Parliament will make sure that attention is kept on her case."