Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan Detains Activists Amid Karabakh Tensions

Baku accused of exploiting rising violence to charge dissidents with treason.
By Shahla Sultanova
  • Leyla Yunus while her home was being searched in May 2014. (Photo: Afgan Mukhtarli)
    Leyla Yunus while her home was being searched in May 2014. (Photo: Afgan Mukhtarli)

Human rights defenders believe Azerbaijan’s government is using heightened tensions around Nagorny Karabakh as an excuse to clamp down on civil society activists, using accusations of treason to turn ordinary people against them.

Activists Leyla and Arif Yunus and journalist Rauf Mirqadirov were among the few civil activists involved in public diplomacy projects between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mostly organised by foreign embassies and international organisations.

They have all now been charged with spying for Armenia, and the Yunuses are among 24 Azerbaijanis deemed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. (See Activists Arrested In Azeri Crackdown.)

The spate of arrests has come amid the most serious escalation of violence around Karabakh since the war ended in a ceasefire agreement two decades ago.(Azeri-Armenian Conflict Fears as Death Toll Rises.)

In Azerbaijan, treason is defined as a deliberate action committed by a citizen to the detriment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or security of the country. This encompasses defection, espionage and helping a foreign state or organisation to commit hostile acts against the republic.

Fariz Namazli, an Azerbaijani lawyer, says this very broad definition allows the government to press charges against almost anyone.

“The law is unreasonable,” he continued. “Based on this article, any cooperation with foreign organisations can be labelled as treason. The law should explain what kind of cooperation is betrayal of the state.”

Prosecutors said the Yunuses collected information on Azerbaijan’s political, economic and military situation and spread “propaganda of the need to recognise the independence of the ‘Nagorny Karabakh regime’ in exchange for the liberation of the occupied territories”.

Jasur Sumerinli, head of the Baku-based military research centre Doktrina, said the charges were ridiculous. Only defence ministry employees could have access to confidential documents and maps, he said.

“Unless someone from the ministry leaked them to Leyla Yunus, she alone could not get militarily sensitive documents,” he said.

He thought the government was exploiting this summer’s heightened tensions around Karabakh, where dozens of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers have died in the worst upsurge of violence in 20 years, in order to crack down on activists.

Leila Aliyeva, director of the Baku-based Centre for National and International Studies, said that since Nagorny Karabakh is such a sensitive issue for Azerbaijanis, it can be successfully used by the government to smear opponents.

“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to sell this to people. That is why most citizens accept it without question,” she said.

From comments posted on social media, it would seem that many people have taken the government’s accusation at face value. Messages posted on the BBC Azerbaijani Service’s Facebook page accused Leyla Yunus of betraying her homeland.

Kheyale Khalili, 25, a resident of Ganja, wrote that she hated the “traitor”.

When interviewed by IWPR, Khalili said that she had not heard of Leyla Yunus before her arrest was announced on television on July 31.

“I am an Azeri. Of course I will be angry about someone collaborating with Armenians,” she said.

State-controlled television remains the dominant source of information in Azerbaijan. According to a 2013 survey from the Caucasus Research Resource Centre (CRRC), only 22 per cent of viewers thought the television news was unreliable.

CRRC survey results also showed that, for the last six years, most respondents have seen the fate of Nagorny Karabakh as the most important issue facing the country and almost all of them see Armenia as Azerbaijan’s main enemy.

Last year, only 17 per cent of respondents said it was important for good citizens to be critical of the government. Trust in President Ilham Aliyev remained high at 84 per cent.

“If Nagorny Karabakh remains the number one problem our society is facing, then it is much harder to point to our failing health care, the poor state of education or human rights abuses,” said Jale Sultanli, a PhD student from Azerbaijan at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

Aliyev met his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi on August 10 to discuss the conflict. Both presidents said they still backed a negotiated resolution of the conflict. (See Putin Mediates Azeri-Armenian Talks on the meeting.)

Sultanli is one of the few experts in the country who thinks ordinary Azerbaijanis and Armenians should launch their own efforts to help bring peace between the two countries. In 2010 she established Caucasus Edition, an online scholarly journal focusing on the conflict.

“There is a group of people across the region who have been working together for many years now. These individuals and organisations are the bridges that exist between two societies. Only our presidents can agree to a solution, but it cannot be implemented without society's participation and involvement,” she said. “There is already minimal support for public diplomacy efforts and these arrests contribute to the negative perceptions and create more mistrust about these projects, and about the organisations and individuals involved in them. It also creates fear and discourages more people from getting involved.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.