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

Azeri Campaigners Abused

Prominent human rights activists are targeted in campaign of violence fuelled by state press.
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Azerbaijan's two most prominent human rights organisations have come under sustained abuse and intimidation in the past ten days, in a campaign fanned by the official media.


The trouble began on April 23, two days after President Aliev was taken ill during a speech in Baku. An angry crowd attacked the offices of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan.


The attackers shouted slogans, threw eggs at the building, poured chlorine over the doors and windows, chucked a bucket of rubbish under the door and broke the windows. The raiders returned the next day and on April 28 invaded the home of the centre's director Eldar Zeinalov.


His sister-in-law, Zemfira Yusifzade, and father-in-law, Iskhag Takhirov, were beaten up. Yusifzade dislocated her arm and the 85-year-old Takhirov badly hurt his shoulder.


Shortly before the attacks, the former prosecutor of Baku city Chingiz Ganizade, who now calls himself a human rights activist, had publicly read out Zeynalov's telephone number on national television and called on viewers to "do what they can so that these national traitors cannot live calmly in Azerbaijan".


The furore followed a visit by Zeinalov and his wife Zalikha Tagirova to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh and the Armenian capital Yerevan from April 15 to 23 to the conference of the Caucasian Forum, a coalition of non-governmental organisations across the region. Zeinalov told IWPR that the discussions did not touch on the political status of Nagorny Karabakh and focussed on the development of civil society in the region.


At the end of his trip, Zeinalov told Arminfo news agency in Yerevan, that Nagorny Karabakh had made progress in building civil society and that the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan would collaborate with Karabakh Armenian NGOs. The interview was quoted and widely denounced in Azerbaijan. Claims were made that his wife had given a bracelet charm to the Karabakh Armenian leader Arkady Gukasian and used the phrase "Nagorny Karabakh Republic" suggesting support for Armenian sovereignty over the disputed territory. Zeinalov and his wife strongly denied these allegations.


A television campaign then began against the other prominent human rights organisation the Institute for Peace and Democracy and its founders Leila and Arif Yunus. On the morning of April 28, around 35 women converged on the office - preceded by a government television crew.


The angry women threw eggs, tried to break in and were narrowly prevented from attacking Matanat Azizova, who works at the office. They chanted slogans, including "Shame on the traitor to the motherland Leila Yunus", "You are the Armenian sister of people like Zeinalov", "Go back to Armenia!" and "Lolita, there is no place for you in our land!"


There is a police post only a few metres away on the same street outside the local synagogue. However, the office employees said that the policemen did nothing to stop the rioters.


A couple of hours later, the crowd had dispersed and a fat ginger cat was happily licking up the spilt egg on the steps of the office. An old lady walking past, who identified herself only as Shafiga, grumbled, "How can they throw away food like that? Allah will not forgive them."


One probable reason why these two particular organisations have been targeted has nothing to do with the Karabakh dispute, but with their domestic political activities. Both have actively raised the issue of political detainees in Azerbaijan. A year ago, they assisted the Council of Europe in compiling a list of political prisoners -- to the fury of the presidential administration.


In February this year, Ilham Aliev, the president's son who is head of the Azerbaijani delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, told journalists that "Armenian structures" were working in Azerbaijan to destabilise the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. He mentioned Leila Yunus by name as well as another well-known civil activist Zardusht Alizade.


In recent days, the political situation in Azerbaijan has become extremely tense after President Aliev collapsed in public on April 21. Presidential elections are due this autumn in which he intends to stand.


Arif Yunus believes this is all connected. "The authorities need a pretext to distract public opinion from the fact that President Heidar Aliev's health is taking a sharp turn for the worse," he said. "So they are trying to destabilise the situation."


There is overwhelming evidence that the campaign is being directed by people inside or very close to the governing regime. On April 25, Bahar Muradova, a deputy with the official New Azerbaijan Party, told Sharg newspaper that Zeinalov and the Yunuses "have no place in our land." Another pro-government newspaper Ses published a list of official groups that had attacked Leila Yunus' office.


Another New Azerbaijan deputy, Sayyad Aran told Sharg on April 30 that the raids on the two offices had been "patriotic acts" and called for "the traitors Zeinalov and Yunus to be brought to justice".


However, Ali Hasanov, head of the socio-political department in the presidential administration denied any official complicity in the attacks. "The authorities create the conditions for all citizens to enjoy their constitutional rights," he told Turan news agency. "Every person and organisation is free to hold mass protests and the government creates the conditions for them to enjoy this right."


The opposition has criticized the attacks. A statement by the Coordinating Centre of Opposition Parties declared that "the campaign of slander and persecution of the human rights activists directed by the authorities against the human rights activists is becoming an open pogrom and is testimony to the coming death agony of the ruling regime".


A string of international human rights organisations and foreign diplomats in Baku, including the British Ambassador Andrew Tucker, have also strongly condemned the attacks.


Zeinalov, who is currently in Geneva attending a meeting of the United Nations Commission against Torture, told IWPR that he had raised the issue with the UN.


A dissenting note was struck by the head of the office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Baku, Peter Burkhard. He visited the offices of the Institute for Peace and Democracy on April 28 after the crowd had left and called what had happened "normal for democratic countries". The besieged human rights activists released a statement expressing surprise and anger at Burkhard's statement and his failure to mention the vandalism of Zeinalov's office.


Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Azerbaijan Coordinator