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