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‘Every Civil Society Leader In Azerbaijan Is In Trouble’

Azerbaijan -- Journalist Khadija Ismayilova summoned to the Prosecutor General's office, February 19, 2014.

Rights groups say authorities in Azerbaijan have unleashed a campaign of repression in recent months, putting the country’s most visible and influential independent activists and advocates behind bars.

Among the most prominent is human rights activist Leyla Yunus, who was arrested and imprisoned with her husband Arif this summer.

As head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, Yunus has been an outspoken advocate for dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and on behalf of political prisoners, positions that have placed her in conflict with the country’s leaders. She was arrested on charges of treason that are widely viewed as politically motivated and punitive.

Investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, who has reported extensively on the financial interests of the family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, is herself a frequent target of attacks in official media, on-line smear tactics, and threats of physical harm and arrest. She was accused of spying for the United States after meeting with U.S. Senate staffers in Baku in February, and is currently subject to a travel ban on opaque legal grounds that prevents her from leaving Azerbaijan. RFE/RL spoke with Ismayilova by phone about the causes and implications of what rights groups describe as “a brutal crackdown.

RFE/RL: Do you have any new information on the status of your travel ban?

Khadija Ismayilova: I haven’t been given any official explanation of what this is about. There was a statement given to the media by the Prosecutor General’s office saying they need me as a witness in an investigation, but I don’t know what that is or why they need me. The travel ban has been in effect for more than two weeks, but they haven’t summoned me for interrogation. I have already missed two international events I was planning to attend, and I have events in November that I will miss. I have been advised by my lawyer that there is no legal basis for this travel ban.

RFE/RL: International organizations warn that the human rights situation is deteriorating quickly in Azerbaijan, and that authorities are flouting international norms and imprisoning their critics with impunity. Why are abuses escalating?

Ismayilova: Absolutely, and there are several reasons that explain the situation. First, the Azerbaijani government took away the wrong lessons from the Euromaidan movement [in Ukraine]. They’ve decided to neutralize any threat of public dissent if [Azeri] President Aliyev goes the way of [former Ukrainian President] Yanukovich. The [politicians] want to make sure that any civil society leader who could oppose them is either in jail, in hiding, or scared. Every single civil society leader in Azerbaijan is in trouble.

RFE/RL: Is the government taking advantage of its chairmanship of the Council of Europe to legitimize its actions?

Ismayilova: Yes, they enjoy impunity for every repression they engage in. It’s devastating how eager Western governments are to please Azerbaijan despite these activities. Like when [EU Foreign Policy Chief] Catherine Ashton and [European Commissioner for Enlargement] Stefan Fuele made statements welcoming the release of four jailed activists. These activists were forced to sign statements asking for clemency. They had to go to the cemetery and bow at the grave of [former Azeri President] Heydar Aliyev, all the while being filmed. And we have European officials welcoming this? It’s impossible. It serves to reward a corrupt government. By praising them for unworthy actions, it encourages them to use detentions as a way to get praise when they finally release people.

There is a [UN] Working Group on Human Rights invited by the government, but the government of Azerbaijan does not even accept that there is a problem with political prisoners in the country. Recently, the government hosted a global youth policy forum, even though there are youth activists in prison.

RFE/RL: What can the international community do to address the treatment of political prisoners?

Ismayilova: They have to tell the Azeri government. We saw that [Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn] Jagland didn’t come to Azerbaijan when he was invited for a conference on the European Court of Human Rights. This is the right policy--not to engage with a country that claims it supports democracy but doesn’t really mean it. The problem is that he didn’t explain why he didn’t come. He needs to be public about it.

It’s not only the responsibility of international organizations, but also member states. The member states of the EU keep silent and leave the statement-making business to the delegation of the EU, which is not actually very active. The EU has not been outspoken on this issue, and they speak on behalf of [all members]. So instead of all the countries that claim to be democratic speaking out individually, they say they speak with one voice, but that voice doesn’t speak out.

Trial monitoring is actually the best part of diplomatic action on the part of the international community, but they never share their observations. We want them to be present as well as share their observations.

The Azeri people don’t feel engagement from the international community, so the government behaves like a medieval kingdom with no international pushback.

RFE/RL: One of the most high-profile political prisoners, prominent human rights campaigner Leyla Yunus, is in detention with a serious medical condition. What are her prospects?

Ismayilova: There are reports that French President Francois Hollande raised the issue during President Aliyev’s last visit, and there were rumors that there were positive notes, but we don’t see any positive action. She had a cellmate who was torturing her, and that woman has been removed finally, but otherwise there are no positive signs. She has been deprived of her lawyers. Her health is deteriorating and her lawyers say she doesn’t feel well and cannot move without support. Her health is the main concern. She has diabetes and a bouquet of other health issues. Prison is no place for anyone with these diseases, especially a 58-year old woman.

--Emily Thompson