TI Azerbaijan Director’s testimony against Leyla Yunus causes controversy

The trial of Azerbaijani activists Leyla and Arif Yunus began Monday, and did not take long for the first major shock: in a case widely believed to be fabricated and politically motivated, APA reported the director of Transparency Azerbaijan, Rena Safaraliyeva,  testified that Leyla Yunus, the 59 year-old human rights activist, had caused her “moral and material damages.

Politically motivated trials built on shaky evidence are not new to Azerbaijan, but respected civil society leaders testifying against their colleagues is. In pro-government media such as APA and Trend, Safaraliyeva directly accuses Yunus of causing her moral and material damages. Reports in independent media outlets such as Caucasian Knot and Contact.az echoed, but did not fully support reports in pro-government media. Safaraliyeva has suffered moral damage, but does not say by whom.

On the question of material damages, she equivocates: “Perhaps there were material damages. It can be determined after studying the grant agreements.”

Safaraliyeva was called to testify about her time at the NGO “Azerbaijan Women for Peace and Democracy in the South Caucasus,” where she worked with Leyla Yunus prior to joining Transparency Azerbaijan in 2006.

The picture became cloudier the following day, when the Transparency International Secretariat released a statement calling for the Yunus' immediate release. Transparency Azerbaijan is the national chapter of the Transparency International anti-corruption movement in Azerbaijan, and though fully independent from the Secretariat, the two normally work in concert. Transparency Azerbaijan has not shared the press release on their website or on social media.

Despite being ostensibly aimed at the Azerbaijani government, the statement was not published in Azeri or Russian, and it is unclear if it was distributed to Azerbaijani media (Meydan TV did not receive a copy).

When contacted about her testimony by Meydan TV, Safaraliyeva stressed that she had testified in the capacity of a former professional colleague of Leyla Yunus, and not as a representative of Transparency International or Transparency Azerbaijan. When asked to clarify what moral damages she referred to in court, she wrote:

I said founders of the organization, including myself, suffered moral damage. I left in early 2006 and most founders did not take part in activities of the organization for the past nearly 20 years and even forgot about being founders. Many are ladies well advanced in years. They received calls and invitations from respective public agencies, the whole thing gave them many unpleasant minutes.  Our names are associated with a court litigation. If this is not moral damage, then what is?  

On the question of who is responsible for this “moral damage” - the state's prosecution or the Yunus family - Safaraliyeva responded, “the prosecution is doing their job.”

Both in communication with Meydan TV and in court, Rena Safaraliyeva seemed determined not to say anything that could implicate or exonerate Leyla Yunus. The two exceptions are the aforementioned agreement that she suffered “moral damages” and her response that “perhaps” Yunus was guilty of financial misconduct.

Safaraliyeva characterized her testimony on Yunus' alleged financial misconduct as “no comment.” When presented with her full response as reported by Caucasian Knot - “perhaps there were material damages. It can be determined after studying the grant agreements” - Safaraliyeva said she had been misquoted, and maintained her actual response was “perhaps there were material damages. I cannot know this. It can be determined after studying the grant agreements.”

To date, Rena Safaraliyeva and Transparency Azerbaijan have declined to take a position on the case against Lelya and Arif Yunus or on Transparency International's statement.

It is unclear whether Transparency International knew that the director of its national chapter had testified in the Yunus trial the day before it issued its statement, or whether Transparency Azerbaijan was consulted at all. When contacted by Meydan TV, Transparency International declined to answer any specific questions on the statement, its preparation, or the relationship between the secretariat and the Azerbaijani national chapter. Instead, it sent the following statement:

Ms Sararaliyeva was to be summoned, and therefore compelled, to be a witness because of her previous role as Chairwoman of the Azerbaijan Women for Peace and Democracy in the South Caucasus from which she resigned in 2006. It would be improper for TI to be aware of a testimony that is to be laid before a court on a case that does not directly involve TI. Therefore we did not seek to see the testimony nor was it offered. Civil society organisations and activists in the country that speak out do so at considerable risk.  TI has been clear that Mr and Mrs Yunis should be released.

The press release also referred to the “potentially political nature of the trial.” But when asked whether Safaraliyeva’s testimony was abetting this potentially politicized trial, Transparency International left the question unanswered.

Transparency Azerbaijan did not always shy away from commenting on sensitive issues or criticizing government policy. In the summer of 2014, the NGO criticized the Azerbaijani parliament and in turn was accused of “treasonous criticism” and basing its report on transparency in Azerbaijan's extractive industries “on Armenian sources.” The next month, Transparency Azerbaijan's bank accounts were frozen, and it was unable to access the funds it needed to carry out its USAID-funded project.

The end of 2014 was a difficult one for all NGOs in Azerbaijan. International organizations like the National Democratic Institute, IREX, Oxfam, and the National Endowment for Democracy were forced to end their operations in Azerbaijan as law enforcement raided their offices and their bank accounts were frozen. District courts also froze the bank accounts of domestic NGOS such as the Media Rights Institute, Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center, Azerbaijan Lawyers Association, the Center for National and International Studies, and others. On July 4 of this year, Azerbaijan terminated cooperation with the OSCE.

Despite its earlier problems with the government, Transparency Azerbaijan is still functioning. According to its website, it recently organized a USAID-funded roundtable on July 28 for government and civil society to discuss “problems in registration of private houses and their solutions.” 

Leyla Yunus was arrested with her husband on July 30, 2014. She reportedly has diabetes and hepatitis C, and both she and her husband have been subjected to beatings in prison.

One of the authors of this article worked for Transparency International – Ukraine from 2012 to 2014.

 

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