Rights Court Orders Azerbaijan to Pay Damages to Activist Couple

The ruling Aliyev family has long been accused of widespread corruption since taking control of Azerbaijan in 1993.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. (Photo via CherryX/Wikipedia)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Azerbaijan illegally jailed married human rights activists who later fled the country, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday, ordering the government to pay them each $23,000 in damages.

Azerbaijan had no reasonable suspicion to arrest Leyla and Arif Yunus, longtime human rights defenders in the former Soviet state, the Strasbourg-based court found, holding that the government’s actions were designed to silence and punish the couple for speaking out against it.  

Their arrest shows “a pattern of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, civil society activists and human rights defenders through retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of the criminal law,” the seven-judge panel found.  

The couple was detained as they were trying to leave the country, following a series of arrests of human rights activities and opposition politicians. They were held in pretrial detention, where Leyla Yunus, who is a diabetic, was refused medical assistance. 

Both were ultimately convicted. Leyla was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and Arif to seven years for fraud, tax evasion and “insulting the motherland.” Both sentences were eventually commuted due to their ongoing health issues. 

The pair left for the Netherlands, ostensibly for medical treatment, and were given political asylum in 2016. A year later, Baku demanded the couple return for new hearings in the case but they have refused to do so. 

Thursday’s ruling from the European Court of Human Rights found that the Azerbaijani government had violated a long list of the couple’s rights, including the right to not be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty and the right to private and family life. 

The court was established by the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the civil and political rights of those living in its 47 member states. It is considered a court of last resort, so applicants must first exhaust their options in their national courts before filing a complaint.

The rights court cited one example of the couple’s treatment as particularly heinous. While being questioned, the 59-year-old Leyla was not allowed to use the bathroom for 11 hours. When she was finally permitted to do so, she had to undress and relieve herself in the presence of a male police officer. 

“The intrusion of a male officer into the toilet resulting in the first applicant being exposed to him in a state of undress clearly amounted to an interference with the applicant’s right to respect for her private life,” the court wrote. 

The couple were each awarded 20,000 euros ($23,000) in damages as well as 11,00 euros ($13,000) for their costs. 

The rule of the Aliyev family, who have been in control of Azerbaijan since 1993, has been described as a cult of personality. Every city in the country has a street named for Heydar Aliyev, whose son, Ilham Aliyev, is the country’s current president. The family has long been accused of widespread corruption.

Human Rights Watch reported last year that opposition activists and journalists in Azerbaijan are often subjected to torture and imprisonment. 

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