WHEN AZERBAIJAN opened the first European Games in Baku on June 12, the extravagant ceremony included a surprise appearance by Lady Gaga, who performed a 10-minute set, for which she was reportedly paid $2 million. The singer delivered a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” while playing a piano covered in flowers.
So let’s “imagine” what Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, were thinking as they sat that evening in an Azeri prison, held for nearly a year in pretrail detention on trumped-up charges intended to muzzle them. Ms. Yunus, 59, a prominent human rights activist, and her husband, 60, a historian, have been accused of tax evasion and treason. Both suffer from serious health problems that have gone untreated during their ordeal.
In Baku this week, their first trial began, on the tax evasion charges. On Monday, Mr. Yunus, who suffers from cardiovascular disease, lost consciousness in the courtroom. He was treated but his symptoms persisted, and on subsequent days he could hardly sit up. Ms. Yunus suffers from diabetes and other maladies. At the end of the week, the public prosecutor, Farid Naghiyev, demanded 11 years in prison for Ms. Yunus and nine years for her husband. The trial is to recommence next week, when both will address the court.
The trial is a travesty of justice and exposes the true intent of the prosecution — to silence these courageous voices. They should be released immediately. Nor are they the only ones to be treated so unjustly. President Ilham Aliyev has locked up about 100 political prisoners, including the gutsy investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
Emin Milli, who spent 16 months in Mr. Aliyev’s prisons and went on to found Meydan TV, an independent online media platform in Berlin that publishes reports critical of the regime, says that the Azeri authorities recently arrested his brother-in-law and made “absurd and bogus accusations” of narcotics trafficking. “All this pressure had one purpose,” Mr. Milli says, “to silence me personally and to silence Meydan TV . . . [a] small island of truth in the ocean of lies, repression and fear.”
Mr. Aliyev behaves as if free speech and human rights are a trifle, and he bears primary responsibility for these abuses. But it is also worth asking: Who outside of Azerbaijan encourages such impunity? Who helps Mr. Aliyev get away with this? In the West, there ought to be more concern for Azerbaijan’s political prisoners among the Europeans who blithely participated in the June athletic games without so much as a glance outside the arena, and from the U.S. Congress members and staff who in 2013 made an expense-paid junket to Baku and were showered with gifts. And what about Lady Gaga, pop icon? She performed while Mr. and Ms. Yunus, exponents of freedom and liberty, were languishing in prison, then accepted the oil-soaked paycheck of a tyrant. Just imagine.