Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo

Human rights defenders and former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus from Azerbaijan have visited Norwegian Helsinki Committee to join the “finissage” of the exhibition at Akershus Art Centre exhibiting art depicting the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. –Human rights are violated more than ever in our home country, Leyla Yunus said. –The numbers of political prisoners keep increasing, and every year around ten prisoners die from torture and ill-treatment in the brutal Azerbaijani jails.

Leyla and Arif Yunus are veteran human rights defenders and democracy activists in Azerbaijan, even from Soviet times. Leyla Yunus is the founder and director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy in Baku, and she has been one of the most vocal human rights activists in Azerbaijan. Her husband through 40 years is the historian Arif Yunus.

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo
Arif and Leyla Yunus next to artwork made by Suzannah Rehell Øistad at Akershus Art Center.

Leyla was sentenced to 8 ½ years in prison in august 2015, after being in custody since her arrest in July 2014. She was convicted for fraud and tax evasion, and faced treason charges in a separate case. Arif was sentenced on similar charges, and tortured in the notorious prison of the Ministry of National Security.

In late 2015, after nearly 1,5 years in prison, they were both released for their serious health conditions, to the point that doctors feared they would die behind bars. With the treason charges still pending, they had no other option than to leave their home country.

Read more about the exhibition at the Akershus Art Center here.

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo
Leyla and Arif met with MPs Geir Jørgen Bekkevold (Head of the OSCE/PA delegation) and Ingjerd Schou (Head of the PACE delegation) at Stortinget.

During meetings at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Parliament, Stortinget, Leyla and Arif’s message was clear: – Do not believe that even though several of the most famous political prisoners have been released, the human rights situation has improved, rather to the contrary. Activists keep being jailed on the most absurd charges.

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo
Arif Yunus, daughter Dinara Yunus, Leyla Yunus and Berit Lindeman in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Leyla is also very concerned about the prevailing impunity for those involved in the brutal repression. Those who construct the criminal cases, commit torture and sentence innocent activists to long prison terms are being promoted, not punished. –We should put them on lists and ensure that they are deprived of the possibility to get a visa to Schengen countries, and have bank accounts frozen, in the pattern of the US Magnitski Act targeting Russian whistle blower Sergey Magnitski’s perpetrators.

-After the regime crushed possible dissent within the military on the mid-nineties, the political opposition parties in the next decade, and NGOs, journalists and youth activists the past five years, now the turn has come to peaceful, Muslim leaders, Lyla Yunus said.

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo
Artwork by Anne Sofie Mathiassen at Akershus Art Center

Azerbaijani people, having lost confidence in Western democratic values after feeling abandoned by Europe in exchange for their need for oil and gas, turned to the mosques. –This is something new in our society; that the mosques became the meeting places for discussion of society. – Now, peaceful religious leaders and activists are filling the lists of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. They have nothing to do with Islamic extremism, although there of course have been cases of ISIS-fighters also from Azerbaijan.

Former political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus visited Oslo
Leyla Yunus, Berit Lindeman and Anders Nielsen recording the first NHC podcast.

Leyla and Arif were also talking about growing discontent all over the country. –There are regular protests in the provinces, Arif said. –These are social protests first of all, people who see a sharp decrease in their living conditions after a similarily sharp fall of the income from oil and gas. We would not be surprised to see that the next major popular unrest will come from Muslim, Post-Soviet countries.