Baku lifts travel ban on prominent Azerbaijani civil rights activists

By bne IntelliNews April 21, 2016

Azerbaijan's supreme court lifted the travel ban on Leyla and Arif Yunus, two human rights activists, who left the country for the Netherlands on April 19. The two were welcomed by their daughter Dinara at Amsterdam's Schipol airport and will be seeking asylum in the country. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders welcomed them, saying that they had "put their own safety and happiness at stake in the struggle for democracy and human rights", according to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Azerbaijan has slid into the area of fully-fledged dictatorship in the last two years, detaining, prosecuting and sometimes beating all critics of the regime or people who otherwise contravened the government's goals. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) saw their accounts frozen, foreign organisations were ousted from the country, while over a hundred journalists, opposition politicians and activists were thrown in prison over trumped up charges. In March, Baku gave signs of a loosening of the crackdown on civil society, when President Ilham Aliyev decided to pardon 148 prisoners, including 14 political prisoners.

Human rights activist Leyla and her historian spouse Arif Yunus have long fought for freedom of speech in Azerbaijan and the reconciliation with Armenia by engaging with the Armenian civil society. They were sentenced to eight and a half and seven and a half years in prison respectively in 2015 over accusations of fraud that were believed to be trumped up. They were released from jail because of health concerns, but not before Leyla reported being beaten in detention several times since she had been detained in July 2014. They are facing trial in Azerbaijan in a separate case, being accused of treason for their work with the Armenian civil society.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are archrivals, having fought over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the late 1980s. However, attempts to moderate the polarising rhetoric against the enemy have not been well received in Azerbaijan, where both politicians and citizens are in support of doing whatever it takes to recover Nagorno-Karabakh and defeat Armenia.

Foreign governments and organisations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have reacted positively to Baku's decision to allow the Yunuses to travel. In a press statement on its website, the US State Department welcomed the decision, saying that expanding freedom of expression in Azerbaijan would strengthen its relations with the US.

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