Together A Lifetime, Azeri Activists Now Apart And In Jail

Leyla and Arif Yunus met as young history students in the late 1970s, at a party hosted by one of their professors at Baku State University.

As the evening drew to a close, Arif offered to walk Leyla to the subway station. There was something about her he liked -- a lot. A week later, he appeared at her mother's doorstep, asking for Leyla's hand in marriage.

Dinara Yunusova, the couple's daughter, says her grandmother was startled by the abrupt proposal. "Usually in Azerbaijan, it's the elders who will come and ask for the hand of the daughter. But my dad came by himself," says Yunusova, 28. "My grandmother was shocked, but she said, 'It's her life.' My mother had already noticed him a few times at the university, even before the party, so I guess she liked him, too."

The couple was married soon afterward, at a small ceremony attended by close friends. Nine years later, Dinara was born.

Arif became a respected author and historian; Leyla, a prominent rights activist and outspoken government critic. Both shared a passionate conviction of the need for reconciliation between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia.

As a child, Dinara fell asleep to the sound of her parents talking late into the night, sparring cheerfully over history or discussing Leyla's work as head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a group launched in 1995 to fight corruption, violence against women, and unlawful evictions.

Sometimes they would settle on the sofa to watch the Soviet-era World War II movies they loved, or listen to tapes of Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava. "They both like to sing, even though they can't," Dinara says. The two were rarely apart.

HRW: 'Completely Bogus' Charges

Now, however, the couple is experiencing the first real separation of their 36-year marriage -- as prisoners facing charges of fraud and treason that supporters say are punishment for their long years of activism and Baku-Yerevan peace efforts.

Leyla, 58, and Arif, 59, were arrested on July 30 and accused of spying for the Armenian secret services and using foreign aid money to recruit Azerbaijani citizens for espionage. Human Rights Watch has dismissed the charges as "completely bogus." 

Leyla Yunus (right) with her mother and baby Dinara
Leyla Yunus (right) with her mother and baby Dinara

Leyla Yunus was remanded at the Baku Detention Facility the same day; Arif Yunus was placed under house arrest but subsequently jailed at Baku's Kurdakhani Prison on August 5. Two days later, he was transferred to the detention facility run by Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry, which is notorious for torture and other rights abuses.

Their arrests come amid a sweeping opposition crackdown by the oil-fed regime of President Ilham Aliyev; at least two other activists, lawyer Intigam Aliyev and democracy campaigner Rasul Cafarov (aka Jafarov), have been detained in recent weeks. A third, Ilgar Nasibov, was brutally beaten and left for dead in the country's Naxcivan exclave on August 21.   

The Yunuses, Cafarov, and Intigam Aliyev have all been added to a newly published list -- compiled, ironically, by Leyla Yunus and Cafarov themselves -- of nearly 100 political prisoners being held in Azerbaijan.

Ilham Aliyev, whose government currently presides over the committee of ministers of the Council of Europe, has denied the presence of any political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Critics say the West has turned a blind eye to the rampant rights abuses of the Aliyev regime out of deference to the country's massive energy wealth.

Will They See Each Other Again?

Concern is mounting, meanwhile, about the Yunuses' state of health. Leyla Yunus suffers from diabetes and requires a special diet; Arif Yunus has a heart condition and was hospitalized after being denied medical treatment when the couple was detained earlier this year at the Baku airport and barred from leaving the country.

For Dinara, who has spent the last five years living in the Netherlands, where she's received political asylum, the news of her parents' arrests has been a torment. She says she last spoke to her father just hours before he was taken into detention on August 5.

"He was very nervous. There were some problems with his heart and blood pressure, but he tried to tell me everything was fine," she says. "He said he was going to bed and that he would call me the next day. The next day, I saw in the newspapers that he had been taken in."

Lawyers for the couple say they've been denied proper medical care and have been barred from communicating with each other. In a plaintive open letter to her husband published last week, Leyla Yunus describes the harsh conditions of her detention cell and pressure from violent cellmates but adds, "most difficult of all is that you are not nearby."

She goes on to compare them to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other Soviet dissidents who were arrested together with their wives. "Together we have read it all...we often discussed how spouses who had been arrested together felt." 

Arif Yunus with daughter Dinara
Arif Yunus with daughter Dinara

Dinara says the letter was heartbreaking to read, especially knowing that her parents will spend months in jail -- and possibly years, if convicted. "She's never been away from him," she says. "Even when I would Skype with my dad, she was always in the background calling him, 'Arif, Arif, come here, help me with something.' She couldn't do anything without him, she couldn't be without him. And now, with his health, she's afraid that she's never going to see him again. She won't be there to say goodbye."

Growing up, Dinara says she was aware of the pressures facing her mother. "My mom and dad, they never told me what to think. But I listened to them talk, and when I got older, I started to translate things for some of her cases. That's when I really saw what kind of complications there could be for her."

But she says even as her parents pushed her to leave the country, they refused to leave Azerbaijan themselves. "They said, 'We're in this, and we're staying here and working for human rights.'" Through it all, they maintained a happy family life, with seaside vacations, walks with their poodle, Joy, and even occasional tango lessons.

"If I could talk to them, I would tell them I love them a lot, and that I'm proud of them," Dinara says. "I hope to hug them very soon. I'm very blessed to have such wonderful parents. Life could not have sent me a better family."


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