Arzu Abdullayeva: ''The most painful times of the past 20 years.''
Summer times are usually so hot in Azerbaijan that socio-political activity slows down. However, summer 2015 will become etched in the national memory as the summer of court hearings and politically motivated trials.
With only three months left until the parliamentary elections in November, they barely make headlines in the country, overshadowed by trials and arrests of activists and their relatives.
Meydan TV spoke with Head of Azerbaijan Office of Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, Arzu Abdullayeva, about the events of this summer and their ramifications for Azerbaijan's future.
How do you assess the current socio-political situation as well as the state of human rights?
This question is asked repeatedly, and there is always only one answer to it: the situation is really bad. We are currently assessing this situation as extremely poor and continue to strive to improve it. However, we see that it’s only deteriorating day by day. This is the toughest period in the past 20 years. From the day we regained our independence, we have been through a lot of hardships, including the war and negative consequences of lack of civil society.
Frankly speaking, there was no civil society. However, after the cease-fire, we gradually started to form a civil society. With this in mind, I could never image that 20 years after difficult times, the civil society would be faced with the harshest prosecution. I am talking about both prosecutions and arrests of political activists’ relatives.
However, this affects not only activists but ordinary citizens as well. Today, a fair investigation and a fair trial seem to be a distant dream for Azerbaijan.
Popular Front Party activist and Karabakh war veteran Asif Yusifli has just been sentenced to 7 years and 6 months in prison. He faced the same charges as former MP Gular Ahmadova who was only handed a three-year sentence. What are the reasons behind such different sentences?
There is only one reason for this anger and brutal attitude. I call it brutal because never before has any woman activist been arrested. They have been persecuted during the protests, but never actually imprisoned. They have never before arrested a female human rights activist or a journalist. I am talking about Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismayilova.
Pro-government activists keep talking about ethics, national mentality and honor, yet they were the ones who spread Khadija Ismayilova’s video [a sex tape filmed with a covert camera was used to blackmail Ismayilova – editor’s note]. It is a shame. I still struggle to understand how they could use privacy invasion as a method. However, the situation is not changin, and tensions are growing. You asked about the reason. There is only one reason - fear. The government fears that some elements might lead to a revolution in Azerbaijan.
Therefore, they accuse Europe and the USA of supporting the imprisoned activists. However, no one wants a revolution. I think the policy applied in the country has been modeled on Russia’s best practices. The situation in our northern neighbour is the same. Human rights activists, NGO representatives, the free press and our colleagues also get persecuted there and falsely accused to be Western agents. It seems to me that sometimes the president is led to believe that some people are trying to topple the government. Two-three people are not in the position to do so.
In fact, quite opposite forces are trying to overturn the government, and only strong civil society representatives could help prevent them. This politics is leading Azerbaijan into a dead end, and the harm is not coming from the civil society. It would be better if the government investigated this situation from within. Could the scattered civil society stem this danger? Both changes in the legislation and prosecutions have disconnected civil society.
The media has faced the same fate. In this sense, a question arises. Since when has telling the truth become considered an act of hostility
Let’s talk about the trials of Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismailova. Independent journalists were not allowed into the courtrooms during the hearings. Is this unusual?
Actually, in the past, some hearings were held in the same, half-closed way. I can name Ilqar Mammadov, Tofiq Yagublu and Hilal Mammadov’s cases as examples
It was the same with Hilal Mammadov’s case. True, it wasn’t as bad as it is now. The situation has gotten much worse over the time. I am now thinking of the future of judges and prosecutors. How will they and their children live with the legacy they are leaving behind and the roles they’re playing in our modern history?
The same way as the children of judges and prosecutors of the 1930th did…
These people falsely accuse innocent and lie, for instance, in Khadija Ismayilova’s case. Everyone knows the real reasons for her arrest – her investigative work. Let’s take Leyla Yunus’s example. I don’t consider her to be perfect. She has made some mistakes in the past, however, the humiliation and injustice she is facing are not compatible with her flaws. In general, the charges are not fair.
The Yunus couple was charged with treason. Arif Yunus was charged with fraud because he transferred his money from one account to another. How can this be even explained?
The reason for Arif Yunus’s arrest is totally different. I couldn’t come to my senses for quite a while when he was charged with treason. After all, who is interested in all these charges? I have been asking myself the same question for a long time now. In order to accuse Arif Yunus of treason and cooperation with Armenia, one needs to be a clueless and foolish agent himself. Only those who are unaware of his activities during late 1980th and the early 1990th can assert this absurdity.
Arif Yunus is the very person who investigated massacre of Azerbaijanis in Armenia and appealed the Prosecutor’s Office in the USSR on their behalf. With his research, he proved that Azerbaijanis were massacred in Armenia way before the events in Sumqayit took place. He researched Kapan events in great detail. His Massacres in Armenia article was one of the most circulated ones. Those who write about Karabakh always refer to that article.
Therefore, I’m wondering: who would benefit from Arif Yunus’s arrest? He proved the fact that the first refugees appeared before the Sumqayit events. From this point of view, Arif Yunus’s arrest could benefit the Armenian side. So, then why would authorities arrest him? It is his personal business, whether or not he transfers his own money from one account to another?
With regard to accusations against Leyla Yunus’s misappropriation of grants, if that was the case, I strongly condemn it. However, even if that had happened, this would be strictly a matter between the donor and the grantee. If the donor accepts the report, then there is no crime here.
Interestingly enough, one of the people who witnessed against Leyla Yunus is someone you know quite well, Rena Safaraliyeva.
Rena did not accuse Leyla of anything in particular. She simply tried to get out of a difficult situation. Therefore, she said that she wasn’t the one managing the organization. She had two choices - whether to take the blame or defend herself. However, Rena Safaraliyeva did not accuse Leyla Yunus.
Recently, relatives of dissidents residing abroad, such as Ganimat Zahidov and Emin Milli, were arrested on charges of drug possession. Why does the government use those charges?
Before answering your question specifically, I will tell you a story that happened to me. It was during the Soviet Union period when I was cooperating with Caritas organization in one of the Baltic Republics. The organization allocated humanitarian aid for the Azerbaijani refugees. Imagine there were 1000 boxes, each weighing 10kg. I was informed that transportation wouldn’t be provided from Moscow. I had to ask for help from businessman Araz Agalarov. At that time, Crocus was not an empire as we know it now.
As soon as I briefly explained the situation to him, he immediately sent his private jet to deliver the aid to Baku. At that time, with the help from the Azerbaijani Social Democratic Party (ASDP) and the Popular Front Party, we managed to deliver boxes from Baku to Yevlakh and then further to Shusha. In Yevlakh, a local police officer approached me and said that they had withheld the humanitarian aid. When asked for the reason, a very shy police officer said they had checked the boxes and found illegal drugs in there. Normally a quiet person, I was simply shocked. I said, “What do you mean?! Karabakh needs anything but illegal drugs and it is Arzu Abdullayeva who brings them in?!”
The police officer, again visibly ashamed of the situation, said he could not do anything about it. The order came from the above. Now the same false accusations are made shamelessly again.
I believe in God, and I believe no injustice will be left unanswered. Therefore, before it is too late, all these judges and prosecutors need to think about what they are doing to their own future. With these actions, the authorities are delaying the process of returning Karabakh. Don’t they really know what a war means? This could have painful consequences, and we could lose it all. What can possibly change with persecuting civil society? Will it improve the quality of our lives in the country? Even if we remain silent, the world won’t. They will ask the government about what goes on in the country. Why do you drag your own country into such an abyss?
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