The pressure of the international community and human rights organizations did not affect the Azerbaijani authorities. It still has imprisoned two human rights defenders for almost ten years – Leyla and Arif Yunus, and investigative journalist, Khadija Ismailova who faces 9-12 years in jail.
A couple of Yunus has been detained for over a year. They were accused of fraud and espionage in favor of Armenia – Azerbaijan's main political enemy. Ismayilova is falsely imputed illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
Throughout the year, the journalistic community and international organizations – the OSCE, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists – organized the actions in support of the Azerbaijani "prisoners of conscience", repeated in all sharps and flats that the charges were fabricated and demanded a fair trial.
Nevertheless, it has led to no effect.
However, the courtroom was overcrowded with the people who did not have any relation either to Knadija, or to the process. Knadija and her mother personally reported journalists this circumstance.
When journalists of Meydan.TV asked the people leaving the courtroom to introduce after the end of the hearing, they refused to answer, and one of attendees even attacked the journalist and broke his camera. At the same time the police stood quietly and watched the scene. "... Khadija Ismayilova is on trial on fabricated charges, but authorities are now preventing public access to the proceedings,”– claimed Nina Ognianova, the coordinator of European and Central Asian program of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
At the same time, the court denied hospitalization to Yununs spouses, whose health conditions are poor, and sent them back to the camera. Leyla suffers from diabetes and Hepatitis C, and Yunus survived after two heart attacks.
"No one who saw the couple in their glass cage could help but be shocked by their condition. And could not help but see them as victims of the political manipulation of justice – independent activists punished for their work,”– wrote for The Guardian Tatiana Lokshina, the director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, who was present in the courtroom.
Recently President Ilham Aliyev has unexpectedly announced that "freedom of the media, which constitutes an integral part of the democratic principles, is one of the top goals and priorities of the Azerbaijani state". He added that he "will personally control the necessary measures for the purpose of insuring fundamental human rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan, as well as freedom of expression and information."
The announcement was made in the context of the tragic death of a journalist Rasim Aliyev, who was beaten by a group of unknown and died in hospital from injuries.
The reason for the attack appeared to be a post on Facebook, in which Rasim Aliyev criticized the Azerbaijani football player Javid Huseynov who raised the Turkish flag during the match of the European League on Cyprus, and showed an obscene gesture to the Greek journalist.
In the light of all the events, the international media and non-governmental organizations were sceptical concerning Aliyev’s rhetoric: “For too long, Azerbaijan’s journalists have been subjected to persecution and horrific attacks such as this one. Their killings frequently go without the culprits being prosecuted and brought to justice, despite the cynical assurances of impartial investigations,”– said Natalia Nozadze, Azerbaijan Researcher at Amnesty International.
The Guardian writes that the murder may be politically motivated: "colleagues and rights activists warned that the football story could be a red herring, and pointed to a history of threats and intimidation against Aliyev and the broader climate of fear in Azerbaijan."
Aliyev was repeatedly beaten by police while covering protests events.
It is difficult to predict the further unfolding of the situation with sentencing of Leyla and Arif Yunusov, and whether they can count on the review of the case.
«In view of the known systemic deficiencies in the Azerbaijani judicial system and the worrying trend of increasing cases against human rights defenders and journalists, which in turn has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the country, […] the conviction will eventually have to be examined by the European Court of Human Rights.» – claimed Thorbjorn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, after the court decision.
However, as for now, Yunus’s lawyers did not publicly report their subsequent activities.
The backgrounds of journalists’ and human rights defenders’ arrests
A wave of arrests of civil society activists and journalists who were in opposition to the government and investigated acts of corruption began in July, 2014. Activist Rasul Jafarov, a human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, Leyla and Arif Yunus were arrested Within a month.
At the same time, the main organization for the protection of freedom of press in Azerbaijan (the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety) was searched and closed, while the director of the organization Emin Huseynov had to seek political asylum in Switzerland. The office of Radio Liberty in Baku and Institute for Peace and Democracy, which, in fact, was led by Leyla Yunus, were also closed.
Khadija Ismailova got to jail six months before these events. An outstanding freelance journalist, a recipient of numerous international rewards, who covered the corruption schemes of President Aliyev and his family, was accused of incitement to suicide. Only afterwards the prosecution added charges of tax evasion and other indictments.
It happened to Ganimat Zahid, the chief editor of "Azaldyg" newspaper, who was bound to flee form the country in 2011. His cousin and two nephews were arrested on charges of "disobeying police" and drug possession. And not so long ago, July 23, authorities arrested a relative of Emin Milli – the director of opposition television channel Meydan TV, who was granted political asylum in Germany. The suspect is accused of drug possession. He faces 12 years in prison.
It bears reminding that Reporters Without Borders has moved Azerbaijan to the 162 position out of 180 in the ranking of press freedom, and the Committee to Protect Journalists has included Azerbaijan in the top-ten countries most vulnerable to censorship.