Leyla and Arif Yunus are in pre-trial detention in Azerbaijan on high treason and other charges that supporters say are blatantly false — a view shared by human rights group Amnesty International, which has named them “prisoners of conscience.”
Leyla Yunus is one the three finalists this year for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. She is also a recipient of this year’s Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award, which the Norwegian Helsinki Committee awarded collectively to all of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department called on Azerbaijan “to respect the rule of law” and release Leyla and Arif Yunus, citing their deteriorating health and what it called “continued threats to Leyla Yunus’ physical security.”
VOA Azerbaijani Service's Asgar Asgarov interviewed their Amsterdam-based daughter Dinara Yunus by email about her fears for her parents' safety and health.
Asgar Asgarov: When did you last speak with your parents? Have you been able to communicate with them since their arrests?
Dinara Yunus: The last time I spoke to my mom, Leyla Yunus, was on July 29, 2014, the day before her arrest. She sounded strong that day, but her physical condition has already been deteriorating. That was due to the stress of the last months’ events. I found out about my mom’s arrest through the Internet. The last time I spoke to my dad was on August 4, 2014. He seemed very tired; still not fully recovered from a mini-stroke that he experienced during my parent’s initial detention in April 2014. But he tried to assure me that everything was fine with him. He is currently located in the Ministry of National Security detention facility, where torture takes place.
AA: What are your thoughts on the physical pressures faced by your mother in detention? Are you concerned about your mother’s well-being?
DY: I am very concerned about the physical and psychological pressures my mom Leyla Yunus is exposed to at Baku Investigative Prison No. 1 (the Kurdakhani pre-trial detention center). Not only does my mother’s cellmate, a violent repeat offender, constantly attack on her, but also recently a major at the prison attacked my mom, brutally beating an old, innocent, diabetic woman ... I am very worried about my mom’s well-being and safety. My mom neither has protection from her violent cell mate nor from from Kurdakhani pre-trial detention center employees, including investigators, nor from (Azerbaijani President Ilham) Aliyev’s whole authoritarian regime in general.
AA: How does it feel to have both your parents in jail? Are you surprised by this turn of events?
I am not surprised. My parents are victims of their human rights work. When the government tries to show the West how “democratic” Azerbaijan is, human rights defenders disclose the reality of Azerbaijan. When President Ilham Aliyev was saying there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, my mom immediately proved there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan, by showing the list of political prisoners she had made carefully together with my dad, including the details of all violations of particular case. Risking their own lives, my parents protected prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Azerbaijan. And now they are prisoners of conscience themselves. My mom also stood up for the rights of citizens whose houses were illegally demolished during the period of Eurovision Song Contest. And then the government punished my parents by demolishing the Institute for Peace and Democracy, our family house.
AA: When did you last visit Azerbaijan? Where are you currently? How is life there?
DY: I left Azerbaijan five years ago, and I’m currently living in Netherlands. I feel safe and protected here. I want my parents to enjoy this freedom and safety, to grow old in peace, without any stress. I think it is time for them to start thinking about themselves.
AA: Do you believe that your parents will be released in the near future? What can the West and the United States do in to win their release?
DY: I think this can be possible only if drastic actions are taken against Azerbaijan urgently, maybe in the form of sanctions. The quiet diplomacy that Western countries tend to conduct does not work in my parents’ case. It is more likely that the court will extend my parents’ stay in prison by the end of this month. Western countries should demand from the Azerbaijani authorities that they act in accordance with the resolution and in accordance with all the obligations in terms of human rights that Azerbaijan promised to fulfill but never did.
AA: The Yunus family has called on BP, the British multinational oil and gas company, to help with the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Do you plan to engage in more activities in that direction?
DY: I think BP is powerful enough to raise the issue of political prisoners and human rights violations that exist in Azerbaijan. BP should demand the immediate release of my parents and all other political prisoners. But it opts to remain silent, or tends not to criticize the regime. After all, it accepts all the profits it gains in Azerbaijan, the profits that are covered in blood, tortue and the the suffering of innocent, free-thinking people, including my dear parents.
[Editor’s note: BP, which has launched a $45 billion project to deliver Azerbaijan’s gas to Europe, has not responded officially to the call, but in a written statement to the BBC, BP officials, said they would follow guidance from the Azerbaijani government on implementing human rights protections]
AA: Do you believe that once your parents are released they would leave Azerbaijan? Would you want them to leave the country?
DY: I cannot speak on my behalf of my parents. This will be their choice. Of course, I want them to leave the country. They are not young anymore, they are in their late 50’s, and my dad will turn 60 in January. He has problems with his heart, high blood pressure. My mom is diabetic, has kidney problems, women’s problems and constant pains in her head, forehead and eyes, especially after she was beaten by the prison officer. She had operations on both of her eyes and has crystal lens implants. If my mom is hit in the head there is a real threat she could go blind. My parents need urgent medical treatment; they cannot stay in prison, which is a life or death situation.
AA: Can you share one of your best memories about interaction with your parents?
DY: Once I went to the dancing class my parents were taking. They were learning the tango. It was amazing to see them dancing. They really loved to dance together. I hope they will do that again in the nearest future.
AA: Considering your parents long-standing service in Azerbaijan, do you have any message to the people and/or the government of Azerbaijan?
DY: I would like to quote my mom, from her open letter to the president of Azerbaijan: “There is nothing you can present against us. The fundamental rule of our life is to strictly follow the letter of law and the spirit of law. Therefore, by persecuting me, you are ordering the law to be violated.”
The conversation was edited for clarity and length.