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

High-Profile Trials in Azerbaijan

Courts concern themselves with charges of financial wrongdoing, and ignore the blindingly obvious offence of criticising the government.
By Nurgul Novruz
  • 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)
  • Khadija Ismayil. (Photo courtesy of Kh. Ismayil)
    Khadija Ismayil. (Photo courtesy of Kh. Ismayil)
  • Taleh Khasmammadov. (Photo: T. Khasmammadov's Facebook page)
    Taleh Khasmammadov. (Photo: T. Khasmammadov's Facebook page)

The courtroom was packed to bursting and hundreds of people were left outside, unable to get in. It was the start of trial proceedings against Leyla and Arif Yunus, Azerbaijani human rights defenders who are accused of working for Armenia.

Before the hearing started on July 28, officials opened a side door to let in dozens of people, some of them pro-government journalists. That meant that when the public entrance opened, there was no space for trial observers, human rights advocates who were hoping to attend.

The Yunuses were arrested a year ago and formally placed in pretrial custody in August 2014.

Prosecutors say they collaborated with a foreign secret service – a treason charge made worse by the fact that the country concerned is Armenia, with which Azerbaijan is still technically at war two decades after the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. Leyla Yunus is charged with six offences including treason, extortion, illegal business activity, forging documents and tax evasion. Arif Yunusov is charged with treason and extortion.

Both say they are innocent of all charges, and that the case has been cooked up for political reasons.

After an initial status hearing held on July 20, Leyla Yunus saw her husband for the first time since they were placed in custody last year.

“We hadn’t seen each other; I hadn’t heard his voice in a year,” she said in a letter to the website. “He had his 60th birthday in a cell and I will spend my 60th in confinement, too. We were separated on our 37th wedding anniversary, and I no longer believe we will be together again in this life, with our daughter and all our family.”

Yunus said that she was not allowed to speak at the July 20 hearing.

“But I want my voice to be heard,” she added. “We are both historians and we well understand that despotism is founded on repression.”

The prosecution appears to have based the treason charge on various cross-border projects in which Azerbaijani and Armenian NGOs have tried to build connections between the two societies. In the past, the authorities in Azerbaijan have tolerated such activities, which are sometimes described as “track two diplomacy” amd are designed to foster greater understanding and more conciliatory attitudes in the two societies.

Proceedings on July 28 began with witness testimony, much of it favouring the accused.

Adilya Manafova, founder of the group Women for Peace and Democracy on the Caucasus Frontier, told a defence lawyer that Leyla Yunus had taken part in Karabakh peacebuilding programmes but she had presented the Azerbaijani position so coherently that “the Armenians were unable to counter her arguments”.

Financial misdemeanours are a common feature in trials of rights activists like the Yunuses, independent journalists and opposition members, as they deflect attention from the political decision to neutralise government critics and make it easier to smear their reputations.

Similar charges are a feature of a second major trial that is now is getting under way.

Leading investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil appeared before judges in Baku on July 24 after spending eight months in custody.

Once again, the court was packed, and many of the international observers and independent journalists who turned up were unable to get in. Nor were members of Ismayil’s family.

Ismayil was held in a glass cage inside the courtroom normally reserved for violent criminals.

“I am increasingly being isolated…. When they take me through the detention centre, they clear all the corridors,” said, jokingly comparing her own treatment to the way everyone had to clear the way when Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev was on tour.

Ismayil reports for the Prague-based radio station RFE/RL and has conducted in-depth probes into financial wrongdoing by top Azerbaijan leaders. Arrested in December, she is now facing charges including embezzlement and tax evasion, after prosecutors found it impossible to stand up an allegation of “pressuring someone to commit suicide”. She could face up to 12 years in jail under the new charges.

The alleged victim of the original “incitement to suicide” charge, Tural Mustafaev, was present at the hearing, although his testimony was postponed. He has repeatedly said outside court that he was blackmailed into filing an accusation against Ismayil.

The current prosecution case against Ismayil seems to be closely linked to an investigation into Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), whose Baku office was raided three weeks after her arrest. Prosecutor has questioned staff members and made several of them subjects of a criminal investigation. (See Azerbaijan Turns on US-Funded Broadcaster.)

Ismayil’s lawyers Fariz Namazli said the charges against his client were wholly misplaced as she had no managerial role or financial responsibility at RFE/RL.

“Khadija could not take decisions that [might] have grave consequences since no property was entrusted to her,” he said. 

Asked whether she recognised the court, Ismayil told Judge Ramella Allahverdiyeva, “I know you will hand down the verdict you are instructed to issue. But all judges here are the same as you, so it makes no difference.”

She went on to tell the court that she had been arrested in order to stop her investigating the business interests of President Aliyev and his family.

“But now my colleagues are doing that,” she said. (Information about these continued investigations can be found at the Khadija Project.)

“Khadija Ismail is a courageous journalist. She has been arrested because of her activities, specifically for uncovering regime corruption,” said Isa Qambar, former head of the opposition Musavat party. “The regime is also seeking to crush freedom of speech and other public liberties.”

The Yunus and Ismayil cases form part of a concerted drive to arrest and jail opposition supporters, journalists, and rights activists over the last year-and-a-half. (See for example In Azerbaijan, It's Press Unfreedom Year.)

“If there is no [free] media atmosphere, you can’t have free elections or a civil society. That’s precisely the purpose behind these arrests,” said Mehman Aliyev, head of the independent Turan news agency. “Allowing an independent journalist Khadija to remain at liberty naturally runs wholly counter to the government’s interests.”

On July 30, Ismayil was awarded a press freedom prize by the US National Press Club.

Also this month, the trial of human rights defender Taleh Khasmammadov ended, almost inevitably, with a guilty verdict.

Arrested in February in the town of Goychay in central Azerbaijan, he was charged with disorderly behaviour (the legal term is “hooliganism”). He was detained after an incident in which, according to his mother Gulbuta, he was accosted by a stranger who then fell on the ground and feigned injury as waiting police swooped. (See story Azerbaijan: Arrests Continue Ahead of Euro-Games.)

On July 22, judges in Goychay handed down a three-year sentence.

Oqtay Gulaliyev, who has campaigned for Khasmammadov’s release, said he was well known in the Goychay area for defending people’s rights and for criticising local government.

“There can be no doubt that his arrest is directly connected with his activities,” Gulaliyev said.

Leyla and Arif Yunus, Ismayil and Khasmammadov have all been named prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.


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