Meet Leyla Yunus, Azerbaijan

Nobel Women Initiative

 December 1, 2015

 “Thirty years ago, before I was even born, my mum started documenting the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. She challenged the government on their poor human rights record and spoke publicly about government oppression. My mum always said she wanted to make her country a better place. Activism is her life’s work, and now she is behind bars because of it. There is such irony in the whole situation—my mother used to protect political prisoners, and now she is one herself.” – Dinara Yunus, daughter of Leyla Yunus 

  Leyla is a human rights defender, historian and founding Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy – an Azerbaijani organization that aims to promote peace and protect human rights.

Her courageous work going head-to-head against Azerbaijani authorities is the reason she now sits in jail with no immediate hope of release.

On July 29, 2014 Leyla openly criticized the decision to host the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, citing the poor human rights situation in the country. The very next day, men believed to be police stopped and detained Leyla while on route to a press conference.  For almost one year Leyla awaited trial while her health rapidly deteriorated. This past August Leyla was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for fraud and tax evasion. She still faces separate charges of treason, which carries a life sentence.

Leyla has been a well-known intellectual and voice for nonviolence in Azerbaijan for decades. In 1990 she formed a “moderate” political party and later the same year published an essay “The Responsibilities of a Politician“, arguing for a democratic middle course and rejecting both extreme nationalism and the violent repressions of the Soviet regime. Leyla has tirelessly advocated for peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan—which have been locked in bloody conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region since the final years of the Soviet Union. Before her arrest, Leyla was monitoring and documenting the cases of 90 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Over the years Leyla has faced harassment and threats for exposing the abuses of her government to a global audience.  In 2011, authorities bulldozed her Baku office after she was quoted in the New York Times criticizing the Azerbaijani government for forced evictions. Human rights organizations—including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – and the US State Department report that Leyla’s current detention is politically motivated. Her arrest was part of a massive crackdown by Azerbaijani President Ihan Aliyev, which set out to quash all dissent ahead of the 2015 European Games.

Leyla has received international recognition for her work. In October 2014, The Norwegian Helsinki Committee awarded Leyla Yunus the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. The same year Leyla Yunus received the Polish Prize of Sérgio Vieira de Mello for her personal achievement in the fight for human rights.

Leyla’s family—including her daughter Dinara and her husband Arif—are continuing their fight to win Leyla’s freedom and get her sorely needed medical attention.