Azerbaijan: Elaborate Smear Campaign Targets Prominent Activist
A scandal has erupted in Azerbaijani legal and activist circles after the publication of a collected volume of the personal correspondence and diary entries of the prominent human rights activist and former political prisoner Leyla Yunus, with the apparent purpose of discrediting her.
Neither the provenance nor the target audience of the book are clear. It is titled “Splendor and Misery of Leyla Yunus,” is authored by her former defense attorney Elchin Gambarov, and is comprised mainly of material that is almost certainly subject to attorney-client privilege. It has been published in four languages.
Passages of the book have been published on the notorious pro-government website Haqqin.az. They are primarily transcriptions of personal letters and diary entries written while Yunus was in prison, along with Gambarov’s often incendiary commentary. As her lawyer at the time, Gambarov was in charge with delivering her letters to the outside world, and he apparently made a habit of photographing them.
Many of the letters are addressed to Yunus’ daughter Dilnara, who was living in exile in the Netherlands at the time and actively lobbying for her parents’ release, and are concerned with advising and coordinating their effort to secure the elder Yunuses’ release.
In the excerpts available online, Gambarov condemns Yunus’s concern with her and her husband’s release from prison and access to medical care as incompatible with her public image of a defender of others’ human rights. Although this line of argument may be drawn out a bit further in other parts of the book, which is not yet widely available, the online excerpts give the impression that Gambarov believes this argument is self-evident.
However, it is not his method of argumentation, but Gambarov’s decision to publish documents and information provided to him by a client that most upset his fellow lawyers, especially considering Gambarov’s promotion to the Presidium of the Azerbaijani Bar - the body tasked with deciding who is and is not a full member of the legal profession.
In an interview with Azadliq Radiosu, Gambarov denied any ethical violations, partly on the grounds that Yunus had slandered him by accusing him of surreptitiously cooperating with the government while acting as her defense lawyer. It is not altogether clear how publishing his client’s private correspondence in a book and on a well-known pro-government website, and launching the book at a public event that appears to have been a procession of Azerbaijani MPs denouncing Yunus as a traitor and Armenian spy, was intended to disabuse the public of this notion.
In an interview with Meydan TV, Yunus claimed that passages of the book appeared to have been written by Haqqin’s editor, Eynulla Fatullayev. She also claimed that she was aware Gambarov was cooperating with the government at the time, and that some of her letters did not represent her true beliefs, but were instead aimed at securing both her and her husband’s release by telling the authorities what they wanted to hear.
Leyla and Arif Yunus were arrested in 2014 and sentenced the following year to eight-and-a-half and seven years, respectively, on politically-motivated charges including tax evasion and other economic crimes. As their health had deteriorated seriously during pre-trial detention, they were released after only a few months and permitted to travel to the Netherlands for medical treatment in 2016.
After their health improved, the Yunuses began to criticize the government again, resulting in an Azerbaijani court demanding their extradition in May 2017 and an apparent attempt to place them on the INTERPOL international wanted list the following month. The first excerpt of “Splendor and Misery of Leyla Yunus” appeared on Haqqin.az three months later.