(Combined Sources)—The international community has expressed grave concerns over the sentencing of Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus on Thursday, and has condemned Azerbaijan for what many world leaders are calling a politically motivated verdict and violation of human rights.
Several governments and international organizations have voiced their alarm over Azerbaijan’s decision to sentence the Yunuses to separate prison terms for fraud and tax evasion, including the Foreign Ministry of the United Kingdom.
Commenting on the judgment, Minister for Europe David Lidington, said he is deeply troubled by the sentencing handed down to Leyla and Arif Yunus. A number of aspects of the conduct of the trial reinforced the impression that the verdict was politically motivated. These included restrictions on diplomats and other observers from accessing the court room. The apparent deterioration of Leyla and Arif’s health during the past year in pre-trial detention is also particularly worrying, he pointed.
“We regularly raise concerns over Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record and will continue to pay close attention to developments in this area,” Lidington stressed.
The Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Isabel Santos, also condemned the sentencing of the Yunuses.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of today’s politically motivated court decision lock away one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent and courageous human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus, and her husband, Arif. The Azerbaijani authorities apparently know no shame in violating the basic OSCE standards that should have protected the Yunuses, such as respect for human rights, freedom of speech and rule of law. The anti-democratic free fall continues in Baku, and I urge the government to immediately reverse this trend,” Santos said.
The U.S. Department of State issued a statement saying that the United States was also deeply troubled by the decision. Department spokesperson John Kirby believes that the charges are solely connected with their human rights work and participation in constructive people-to-people programs aiming to ease tensions and build confidence in the region.
“We are further troubled by reports of irregularities during the judicial process. We are particularly concerned about their health, and we urge the authorities to release them immediately on compassionate grounds,” Kirby said.
Anne Brasseur, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), also condemned the judgment. “I am shocked and outraged by the sentencing of Leyla and Arif Yunus,” she said. “The Council of Europe has repeatedly urged the authorities to stop the unprecedented crackdown on civil society – including reprisals and judicial harassment of human rights defenders and independent media – and address human rights problems in the country.”
“Despite these appeals, the situation has not improved. It has worsened,” Brasseur pointed out, stressing that this put in question Azerbaijani authorities’ willingness to respect the fundamental values of the Council of Europe. “Today’s decision is further proof of serious and systemic human rights problems in Azerbaijan,” the PACE President said.
She further reminded that in its June 2015 resolution on Azerbaijan, the Assembly called on authorities to “put an end to systemic repression of human rights defenders, the media and those critical of the government,” to “release all political prisoners,” and to “stop the reprisal of journalists and others who express critical opinions.”
“Today’s decision shows that these appeals have fallen on deaf ears in Baku. Therefore, I once again urge the authorities to take a step back and re-examine their approach to human rights, in line with the commitments they have made to the values and standards of the Council of Europe,” Brasseur concluded.
Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, also condemned the verdict handed down to the Yunuses. “These sentences are a glaring illustration of the ongoing repression in Azerbaijan,” he said, calling on Azerbaijani authorities to end their repression and to show more attachment to the values of human rights, democracy and rule of law that they have committed to by joining the Council of Europe.
The office of the Secretary General of the European Council Thorbjorn Jagland released a statement saying that Jagland will request from Azerbaijani authorities the full details of the judgment and the evidence presented against the rights defenders. In view of the known systemic deficiencies in the Azerbaijani judicial system and the worrying trend of increasing cases against human rights defenders and journalists, which in turn has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the country, Jagland is of the opinion that the conviction should eventually be examined by the European Court of Human Rights.
On August 13, 2015, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes brought in a verdict against Leyla and Arif Yunus, sentencing them to 8.5 years and 7 years’ imprisonment respectively. On 6 August 2015, during Leyla and Arif Yunus trial in the Baku Court of Grave Crimes, prosecutor Farid Nagiyev called on the court to sentence Leyla Yunus to 11 years’ imprisonment and her husband 9 years for swindling, tax evasion, and other abuses.
In 2014, French President Francois Hollande met Leyla Yunus in Baku and awarded her with the Order of the Legion of Honor. Later, on July 30, Yunus was arrested in the yard of her house. She was charged with high treason, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, forgery, and large-scale fraud.
In January, international media reported that German doctor Christian Vitt had confirmed that the arrested human rights defender suffered from serious illnesses. However, in February 2015, the Azerbaijani Nasimi District Court extended Leyla Yunus’ pretrial detention for five months. Her husband, Arif Yunusov, also faces charges of high treason and large-scale fraud.