Story of Ramis Yunus, a family member of Azeri imprisoned rights defenders Arif and Leyla Yunus. (Audio & Photo Multimedia)
Despite living for more than a decade in the United States, a leading Azeri dissident says he feels homesick for his motherland that he is not allowed to return to.
The dissident, Ramis Yunus, 56, is from Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet country that suffers from fragile democratic transition.
Living outside Washington, D.C. along with his family, Yunus says, he often visits the neighboring city Baltimore which reminds him of Baku — the city where he grew up.
Yunus, a former chief of staff of the Azerbaijani government and Parliament, was forced out of his country in 2003 due to political shift that he was strongly opposing, and got an asylum in the U.S. years ago.
Most of his family members though were persecuted since then for political reasons; and the government is still punishing some. Most recently, his brother Arif Yunus and Arif’s wife Leila Yunus, both leading rights activists in the country, have also been arrested, facing charges of fraud and treason that supporters say are used as a punishment for their long years of activism and regional peace efforts.
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Leyla and Arif were arrested on July 30 in a wake of a sweeping opposition crackdown by the oil-fed regime of President Ilham Aliyev; at least 30 other activists have been detained since their arrest. Amnesty International and other international rights groups called the charges against Yunuses “dubious.”
Living in the D.C. area, where there is an opportunity to attend many events and reach out to the politicians, Ramis says; he has been trying to draw international attention to his country and family’s situation.
“Years passed since our last family gathering… My brother, his wife have done nothing wrong rather than just defending human rights. Today they’re paying hard for it — in prison in their own country,” Ramis said in an interview. “I’m trying to share their story with the world as much as I can.“
A few years ago Ramis’s brother Arif visited him in Baltimore, where they were able to explore the city and chat about their past and the future. That was his last time seeing a family member.
“I still remember how I was trying to convince Arif not to return to Azerbaijan where he was in grave danger. I remember his reply: “If we all leave, then who will build democracy and protect human rights in Azerbaijan?” I’m proud of my brother and his wife Leyla,” he said.
Although it was a difficult way to leave the family behind and adapt to a new country, Ramis says, there are all the conditions for immigrants to start a new life in the United States.
“Today, I am proud to say that I’m a citizen of the United States of America. But it is very hard to accept the fact that not all members of my family can share with me this joy of living in a free world,” he said.