Leyla Yunus: Defending human rights: A way of life

Geneva, 23 December2016 (OMCT) - Leyla Yunus could not stand the abusesof the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan, so she decided to devote her life tothe defense of the rights of victims who suffer injustice. Although her pathhas proven to be littered with obstacles, she remains undeterred, and keeps challengingthe Government of Azerbaijan on its failing human rights record.

Ms. Yunus first engaged actively to advocate for Azerbaijan’sindependence from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Her hopes that the fall of theex-USSR would bring democratic transition were rapidly dashed after PresidentHeydar Aliyev came to power in 1993 and instituted a regimecharacterized by intolerance for dissent and disregard for civil liberties andpolitical rights. “We were back to Stalin times,” she said.

In 1994 she co-founded the Institute for Peace andDemocracy (IPD) to document cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and drawinternational attention. She rapidly moved onto denouncing all human rightsviolations, including rampant corruption, human trafficking, and violations ofminorities’ rights. As her Institute gained public recognition, this also broughther to the attention of the authorities.

Paying a high price

Over the years, Ms. Yunus and her family faced increasingharassmentand threats as a result of her outspoken criticism of herGovernment’s abuses. Even her daughter Dinara was targeted, leaving her noother choice but to seek asylum in the Netherlands.

In 2011, the authorities unlawfullydemolished her home and IPD office after she denounced forced evictions thatwere taking place in Baku ahead of the 2012 Eurovision Song Context. “A bigbulldozer arrived and demolished our flat with everything inside - ourarchives, library, computers,” she recalled. “Yet we continued our work.”

2014 saw an upsurge in the repression ofcivil society ahead of the Baku European Games. Dozens of human rights defenders andjournalists were arrested on politically motivated charges, including Ms. Yunusand her husband Arif. Both were finally releasedon medical grounds at the end of 2015 after being arbitrarily detained fornearly 18 months. “Everyonethought we would die in prison, even my daughter,” she said. Yet they stillface treason charges, which has left them with no other viable option than to fleeAzerbaijan. “We had no other choice. We had to leave. But I never thought Iwould have to leave my home, my motherland.”

Closing space fordissent

Like Ms. Yunus and herhusband, several prominent human rights defenders in Azerbaijan were releasedin late 2015 and early 2016. However President Ilham Aliyev has pursued his systematic crackdown on allcritical and opposition voices in an attempt to consolidate power.

Many Government critics,including political activists, defenders, journalists and bloggers, remain inprison, face travel bans or were forced to leave the country to avoid further persecution.New laws, adopted in 2014,have also allowed the Government to freeze bank accounts of independent NGOsand their leaders. It is now almost impossible to carry out independent humanrights work within Azerbaijan.

Determined as ever

Despite the time she served behind bars under harshconditions and her forced exile, Ms. Yunus refuses to remain silent in the faceof reports of human rights violations that continue to emerge from Azerbaijan.

“I still document cases of political prisoners, whichnumber is now higher than in Russia and Belarus. Some of them die as a resultof torture. But the situation fails to receive the requestedattention from the European Union and the Council of Europe.” Even inexile, Ms. Yunus continues to be seen as a threat to the Government. “Can youimagine that they are still afraid of me? They are still monitoring my flat inBaku,” she said.

Her integrity and determination remain undiminishedand unrelenting. “We must struggle,” she said. “Because defending human rightsit’s not my job, it’s my life.”

This article is partof a series of 10 profiles to commemorate International Human Rights Day, 10December, and to recognize the vital role of human rights defenders worldwide.

To see the campaignvideo, please click here.

OMCT wishes to thank the Republic and Canton of Genevaand the OAK Foundation for their support. Its content is the soleresponsibility of OMCT and should in no way be interpreted as reflecting theview(s) of the supporting institutions.

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