Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International demanded on Thursday the immediate release of another Azerbaijani civil society member arrested on charges of spying for Armenia.
Leyla Yunus, a prominent human rights activist critical of Azerbaijan’s leadership, was taken into custody on Wednesday after repeated interrogations relating to her involvement in Armenian-Azerbaijani people-to-people diplomacy. She was charged with treason, tax evasion and fraud and remanded in pre-trial custody.
Azerbaijani prosecutors also charged her equally famous husband, Arif Yunus, with high treason but stopped short of arresting him pending investigation.
In a joint statement, Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General's Office and National Security Ministry claimed that the couple for years maintained contacts with Armenian non-governmental organizations with the aim of spying for Armenia. They said Yunus and her husband recruited prominent journalist Rauf Mirgadirov and other Azerbaijanis to pass classified information to Armenian intelligence agents posing as civic activists.
Mirgadirov was arrested in April on treason charges stemming from his repeated trips to Armenia, during which he attended seminars on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and broader regional security. The U.S. State Department as well as international human rights groups expressed serious concern over that arrest, condemned the Yunuses.
“Azerbaijani authorities should immediately secure the release of leading human rights defender Leyla Yunus from pretrial custody, and drop the politically motivated charges against her and her husband Arif Yunus,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.
The statement quoted Rachel Denber, the New York-based group’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, as saying that the charges levelled against the couple are “bogus and intended to silence them.” “The authorities should immediately end this campaign of intimidation against Azerbaijan’s leading human rights defenders and allow them to work unimpeded,” she said.
“Amnesty International believes that the treason charges against Leyla and Arif Yunus are trumped up and are part of a process of on-going harassment against them in connection with Leyla Yunus’s activism,” read a separate statement released by the respected London-based watchdog.
Amnesty said the high-profile case highlights the Azerbaijani government’s “abysmal” human rights record. “Today’s detention is yet another example of the unrelenting suppression of critical voices that is a regular feature of life in the country,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty’s researcher on Azerbaijan.
Leyla Yunus's arrest came just one day after she published a scathing open letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in which she criticized him for arresting critical bloggers and activists. "Why are you so scared?" she asked, urging Aliyev not to go down in history as "a tyrant and a dictator."