BAKU—A court in Baku on Thursday convicted the husband and wife human rights activists, Leyla and Arif Yunus, sentencing them to lengthy jail terms.
Leyla Yunus was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison, while Arif was sentenced to seven years, following what is being viewed as a purely politically motivated prosecution and a trial that fell far short of international standards.
The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately move to set aside the convictions, drop all outstanding charges, and release the elderly, ailing couple, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
“The fact that the verdicts against Leyla and Arif Yunus were totally predictable does not make them any less a travesty,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Yunuses never should have been arrested, let alone imprisoned and prosecuted. The Azerbaijani authorities should now do the right thing, have the convictions and sentences set aside, and turn a page on the appalling crackdown against human rights defenders, of which the Yunuses are victims.”
The couple has also been charged with treason, for which the authorities have said they will be tried later.
Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s leading human rights activists, is head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif, is a historian who was an expert adviser for the group.
One of the Yunuses’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that in his final statement, Arif Yunus, 60, said that he has been medicated throughout the trial with strong injections and could barely understand anything, but that the court paid no heed. He said the trial had been “rushed and strenuous, more than a man as sick as he could bear.” When he finished speaking, he cried out, grabbed the back of his head, where he has an undiagnosed lump, and stumbled.
In her final statement, Leyla Yunus, 59, compared the proceedings with those during the Soviet era. She said that the government was punishing her and her husband for their human rights work, and that they were both prepared for the worst.
Both of the Yunuses suffer chronic health conditions, and their health has deteriorated significantly during a year in detention. Both have also made credible allegations of ill-treatment in detention. Arif Yunus, who suffers from hypertension and recently had two strokes, walks with great difficulty and could barely sit up during the trial. During a hearing on August 3, he lost consciousness when his blood pressure spiked. He received injections before and during subsequent hearings to enable him to be present, but the judge did not postpone the proceedings to allow him to receive the more extensive
“Azerbaijan’s partners should speak with one voice in condemning this assault on human rights and the rule of law,” Denber said. “They should make it clear that business as usual depends on the Azerbaijani government ending its repression of perceived critics and that the first step is freeing Leyla and Arif Yunus.”