Human Rights Problem in Azerbaijan Amidst Upcoming Election

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October 30,
2015

By Danielle Saroyan

Armenian Agenda Associate Editor

On
Wednesday, October 28, the Senate Human Rights Caucus Co-Chairs Senator Mark
Kirk (R-IL) and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) held a special congressional
briefing titled “Human Rights in Azerbaijan: A Pre-Election Preview.” This
briefing was held a few days before Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections,
taking place on November 1st. Panelists examined the current
political environment in Azerbaijan, concluding that current human rights
violations by the government, such as suppressing freedom of expression by
beating and intimidating journalists, prevent a free and fair election from
taking place. According to Freedom House, Azerbaijan is the worst violator of
human rights and freedom of expression in the South Caucus, characterized as “Not
Free” in the 2014 Press Freedom Report.

The panel featured
Dinara Yunus, daughter of falsely imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders
Leyla and Arif Yunus, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich
(1994-7), National Endowment for Democracy Senior Director of Russia and
Eurasia Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, and Eurasia Specialist at Freedom House’s Emergency
Assistance Program Tamara Grigoryeva. The briefing was moderated by McCain
Institute Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy David Kramer.

Yunus
initiated the briefing sharing an emotional story about her life as the
daughter of prominent human rights defenders. Leyla Yunus, director of the
Peace and Democracy Institute, was arrested on July 30, 2014, followed by her
husband Arif Yunus’ arrest on August 5, 2014. They were arrested with trumped-up
charges related to their NGO work, such as treason for their activities promoting
peace and reconciliation with Armenians. Their daughter, Dinara, was exiled
from Azerbaijan after threats from the government to her parents if they continued
their work, forcing Dinara to escape to the Netherlands where she resided for
the past six years.

Yunus heard that
her parents were illegally detained the first time in April 2014, but was
unable to call or get in touch with them. Since she is not allowed to return to
Azerbaijan, the only way she knows if her parents are alive is by watching the
scarce media outlets allowed to cover the case. According to media reports, she
discovered that her parents have been tortured, denied medical attention, and
prevented from participating in their own court hearings. While watching her
parents’ court cases, she kept thinking to herself “I don’t understand. Don’t
they have mothers and grandmothers? Are we losing a human face?,” she said at
the briefing on Capitol Hill.

Panelists Dr.
Lanskoy and Ambassador Kauzlarich knew Leyla and Arif Yunus personally and were
familiar with their human rights work. Dr. Lanskoy spoke about how they
defended ethnic and religious minorities in Azerbaijan. According to a 2014-2015
report from Amnesty International, at least six prominent human rights
defenders are imprisoned in Azerbaijan, forcing leading human rights
organizations to shut down or cease their activities in the country. In
Azerbaijan, the report shows an injustice with freedom of association,
expression, and assembly, imprisoning government critics, political activists,
and journalists as prisoners of conscience.

“There will
always be a threat for human rights defenders in an Authoritarian Regime,” says
Dinara Yunus.

Former U.S.
Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich said the Yanuses are his friends
and any Azerbaijani officials who are responsible for their mistreatment and
arrest “should face financial, travel sanctions at a minimum.” Ambassador
Kauzlarich mentioned the human rights abuses taking place in Azerbaijan,
stating his belief that “strategic partners must have shared values.”

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At the
briefing, Grigoryeva spoke about her many journalist friends and colleagues who
have been jailed, including bloggers, social media activists, independent media
agencies, and publication companies. She said it is currently illegal to sell
newspapers on the streets or metro in Azerbaijan, and news outlets must be
pro-government if they want to continue their work. Since December 2008, Azerbaijan
authorities banned all western broadcasters
including Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty, the BBC, and Voice of America. Meanwhile, Russian news channel Russia
24 TV continues to operate freely in Azerbaijan and has interviewed Azerbaijan President
Ilham Aliyev many times. For the upcoming presidential election, the Azerbaijan
government eliminated the one public debate and instead the Public TV channel,
the only news outlet allowed to cover the elections, charges $47 per second for
any opposition candidate to speak, which they typically cannot afford.

“There is no
chance for a fair and free election without free media,” says Grigoryeva.

Photo
Caption 1 (L-R):  National Endowment for
Democracy Senior Director of Russia and Eurasia Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Eurasia
Specialist at Freedom House’s Emergency Assistance Program Tamara Grigoryeva,
former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich (1994-7), human rights
activist Dinara Yunus, and McCain Institute Senior Director for Human Rights
and Democracy David Kramer.

Photo
Caption 2 (L-R): Ambassador Kauzlarich holding a photo of human rights
defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus next to Dinara Yunus, their daughter.

About Armenian Assembly of America

Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.

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