Azerbaijan's arrest of a respected human-rights activist is fuelling fears that the country is pulling out all the stops on crushing dissent before it takes over the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers next month.
Fifty-eight-year-old Leyla Yunus, who chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were detained in the Baku airport late on April 28 as they were about to depart for Doha, Qatar.
The reasons for their detention were not made known, but, after an interrogation on April 29, investigators reversed course and released Leyla Yunus, Trend news agency reported. (Yunus' spouse earlier had been hospitalized with heart problems.) The similarly pro-government APA agency added, however, that her office would be searched anyway. The information has not yet been confirmed, but any memory of prosecutors' actions is not likely to fade away fast . In a video published by RFE/RL's Azeri-language service and widely distributed on Facebook, Yunus, who has 30 years of rights and peace advocacy behind her, was shown defying police officers after they searched her apartment. She claimed the police did not present her with a warrant, nor explain the reasons for her arrest.
Yunus said they would not let her use the bathroom after her detention and, when finally so permitted, a male police officer went in with her. “He followed me into the toilet and stood there watching me… get him on camera!” Yunus yelled, taking the individual's police hat and throwing it to the ground.
Last week, Yunus predicted that she would be arrested on treason charges to prevent her from criticizing Azerbaijani government’s dismal human rights record. “It would be funny to arrest me with drug charges [a standard accusation against younger government critics]. So they will do it for treason,” she told RFE/RL.
Yunus’ lawyer, Fuad Aghayev, who initially was not allowed to see his client, claimed her detention was a reprisal for her vocal criticism of the controversial arrest of journalist/political analyst Rauf Mirkadirov on charges of espionage for next-door enemy, Armenia.
Apart from being government critics, Mirkadirov and Yunus for years have been involved in citizen diplomacy between Azerbaijan and Armenia, measures which buck the government's stance.
Following Mirkadirov’s arrest, Yunus and her Armenian partner in these outreach events, Laura Baghdasarian, published a letter lambasting the Azerbaijani government for allegedly trying to thwart people-to-people diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They called on the international community to put pressure on Baku.
Of late, almost every other news story coming out from Azerbaijan is about detentions and convictions of government critics and the country's deteriorating human-rights record.
Meydan TV, a government critic, cited a US State Department official as saying that Washington is "actively" following events related to the Yunuses. So far, however, such events have not stood in the way of Azerbaijan’s planned chairmanship of the ministerial board of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights group.
Critics charge that Azerbaijan's potential for contributing to Europe's energy security long has helped President Ilham Aliyev’s government cushion any pressure from the West.
Criticism there has been, however, including recently from the Council of Europe.
Aliyev, for his part has not addressed such remarks, keeping the focus instead on Azerbaijan's growing economy.