About Simon Maghakyan

Simon Maghakyan was the South Caucasus country specialist at Amnesty International USA from 2008 to 2014.
Author RSS Feed

Dear Baku: Stop beating activist. Release her. Drop treason charge!

Leila Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy

Leila Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy

Arresting its loudest critic and charging her with “treason” doesn’t seem enough for Azerbaijani officials. Last week, peace activist and human rights defender

was beaten by Kurdakhany detention facility administration staff.

An April 2014 video shows Leyla Yunus confronting officials (in Russian) about not having been allowed to use the toilet during an unlawful detention for interrogation. Although officials eventually allowed her to use a toilet (with a male guard watching her), Leyla says she was not informed of charges against her.

Less than half a year later after the detention, Leyla (and soon her husband Arif Yunus) were arrested and given ridiculous charges of treason and tax evasion. Amnesty International considers both Prisoners of Conscience and calls on Baku to release them immediately and unconditionally (add your voice to our appeal).


When Will Russia and the Former Soviet Union Stop Instituting Homophobic Policies?

Gay rights activists march in St. Petersburg (Photo Credit: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images).

Gay rights activists march in St. Petersburg (Photo Credit: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images).

The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia has been controversial for a while, compliments of host country’s president Vladimir Putin.

His homophobic policies have lead to widespread boycott calls, but have not sparked official outrage in the former Soviet Union.

On the contrary. This week, Armenia’s state police posted online a legislative proposal to fine up to $4,000 for promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors. It swiftly took down the proposal from the website after some protest, citing lack of priority and shortcomings. The police credited “several dozen intellectuals” for prompting the legislation in the first place.


An American Intern’s Fight for Justice in Armenia

Narine Esmaeili was intimidated by Armenian police and the subject of an interrogation after she tried to stop massive ballot stuffing in Artashat’s polling precinct (Photo Credit: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

Narine Esmaeili was intimidated by Armenian police and the subject of an interrogation after she tried to stop massive ballot stuffing in Artashat’s polling precinct (Photo Credit: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

A 21-year-old U.S. student was an observer in her ancestral homeland Armenia’s disputed February 18, 2013 Presidential election. When Narine Esmaeili, who interns for Transparency International, tried to prevent massive ballot stuffing in Artashat’s polling precinct 17-5, she was physically assaulted by the local mayor’s son and instructed to be a “good girl” – keep her mouth shut – by the police who responded to her phone call. The young woman did the opposite, videotaping a testimony and posting it on YouTube.


An Ironic Honor: Internet Governance Forum in Azerbaijan

Policemen Man-handle Activist in Azerbaijan

Three policemen man-handle a political activist during a protest in Baku, Azerbaijan, March 12, 2011. ©IRFS

A United Nations initiative called Internet Governance Forum is about to have its annual forum in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, to discuss, among other issues, freedom of speech.

Yet in Azerbaijan, people who exercise this fundamental right to criticize President Ilham Aliyev, his family or government risk being threatened, attacked or imprisoned – whether they do so on- or off-line.

“They don’t jail all the bloggers. They pick up two or three who go – in their view – too far,” explains Emin Mill, an Azerbaijani digital dissenter who served time in prison for “hooliganism.” SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Prisoner Without Conscience Pardoned and Promoted

Ramil Safarov Azerbaijan

Ramil Safarov  (Photo AFP/Getty Images)

An unremorseful axe-murderer was freed and rewarded last Friday after the Azerbaijani government secured military officer Ramil Safarov’s extradition – and de facto release – from Hungary.

Safarov had been serving a life sentence in Hungary for axing – with 16 blows – to death his sleeping Armenian colleague, Gurgen Margaryan, at a 2004 NATO Partnership for Peace course. He then attempted to kill the other Armenian participant, but found a locked door. Safarov proudly admitted to the murder and was convicted to life by a Hungarian court.

While swift to imprison peaceful domestic dissidents, the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, spared no effort to release the criminal, by reportedly showering Hungary with an as much as $3.8 billion loan offer, enabled by the Caspian’s energy riches.


Photos of Teddy Bears Land Belarus Student Behind Bars

belarus teddy bears fly over minsk

“Freedom” teddy bears drop into Minsk, Belarus (Photo via Studio Total)

Anton Surapin did what millions do every day: he posted photos of something interesting online. But he lives in ex-Soviet Belarus, the most authoritarian state in Europe, and the photographs in question were of teddy bears that had just parachuted out of the sky carrying a pro-human rights message.

For uploading on his website the controversial teddy bear photos, the twenty-year-old photographer and student was thrown in prison.

Charges against Surapin stem from the July 4, 2012 stunt organized by Swedish advertising firm Studio Total to highlight the clampdown on freedom of expression in Belarus. The company airdropped hundreds of teddy bears on parachutes with placards calling for free speech to be respected in Belarus. The campaign has most recently triggered diplomatic scuffle, with Belarus and Sweden expelling envoys over the controversy.


Homophobia Olympics in the Former Soviet Union

LGBT Rights in Russia

Russian police detain a gay rights activists during an attempt to hold an unauthorized rally in central Moscow. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

In the sporting world, countries from the former Soviet Union are used to winning medals. But in terms of gay rights, the only accolades these countries are winning are the wrong ones.

olympic medalsShort of outright criminalizing homosexuality as was the norm during Soviet times, Russia and most of its former satellite states are increasingly violating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights. If a 2012 Eurasia Homophobia Olympics were held today, the “winning” countries trampling on the human rights of LGBTI people would be as follows:

Gold Medal: Armenia, for officially (and utterly shockingly) justifying and defending the firebombing of a gay-friendly bar by self-described young “fascists.”


Russia: Where a Punk Rock Performance Could Land You in Prison

pussy riot

"Pussy Riot" (Image via Wikipedia)

Three young women in Russia may spend seven years in prison for “hooliganism” after a flash punk rock performance at a Moscow church that criticized President Vladimir Putin.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich, alleged members of the controversial band Pussy Riot, were arrested in March 2012 and are being held in pre-trial detention following the politically-fueled performance at Moscow’s famed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Egyptian air is good for the lungs / Do Tahrir on Red Square!

Pussy Riot lyric

While the three women deny any involvement in the protest (band members cover their faces with balaclavas) even if they took part, the severity of the response by Russian authorities is not justifiable to the peaceful – even if to many, offensive – expression of their political beliefs.

Pussy Riot is a Moscow-based anonymous feminist band that, for the last year and a half, has played unauthorized “flash performances” to protest government policies (watch them in action here).  Pussy Riot’s members use their right to freedom of speech – through music – to shed light on what they perceive to be a corrupt government. In an interview with the Guardian, band member “Garadzha” explains:

Violence Against Armenian Women is a Crime, Not a Tradition

Armenian woman protests

Will Armenia step up protections for women? (Photo KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The smallest yet probably oldest of the successive Soviet nations, Armenia prides itself for its ancient traditions. In his International Women’s Day statement, President Serge Sarkissian wishes women “happiness, luck, and healthy and strong families,” commending the preservation of women’s “traditional role.”

Does the latter include being a victim of violence? The Armenian government’s very poor record on combating widespread violence against women may suggest so.

Armenia is the only country among its Council of Europe neighbors without legislation criminalizing domestic violence. Armenia’s government has been arguing that it will pass comprehensive legislation once the Council of Europe finalizes its convention on the issue. It’s been nearly a year since the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence opened for signatures, yet Armenia hasn’t ratified it (see the interactive map of countries that have).