The eight-and-a-half and seven year sentences respectively handed down today to human rights defenders Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus show the continuous criminalization of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, Amnesty International said.
Both were convicted for “fraud” and other crimes related to their NGO work at a trial in the capital Baku. International observers and journalists were refused entry to the court and only a handful of diplomats were allowed to attend.
A charge of treason, purportedly spying for Armenia, is also pending against the couple, but it has been sent to a separate court for consideration.
“These absurd charges have resulted in viciously harsh sentences for Azerbaijan’s prominent human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus. We urge the government to quash these outrageous convictions. Leyla and Arif Yunus are prisoners of conscience and they must be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Levan Asatiani, campaigner at Amnesty International.
“The judicial system has once again revealed itself to be no more than a cynical tool by which President Ilham Aliyev crushes any dissent or criticism of his regime. His government’s human rights record is simply shocking.”
Leyla Yunus is the director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy and before her arrest had been documenting the treatment of political prisoners in Azerbaijan by the authorities. Her husband, Arif Yunus, is a historian and political activist.
She was arrested on 30 July 2014, five days after organizing a press conference calling for an international boycott of the European Games because of host Azerbaijan’s dire human rights record.
Amnesty International believes the charges against the couple were clearly fabricated in retaliation to their legitimate human rights work and criticism of the Azerbaijani government.
Both suffer from serious health problems and their health has deteriorated further in detention. Today, Arif Yunus lost consciousness during the court hearing. He suffered two strokes in April 2014 and his family fears that he may not survive another stroke.
Leyla Yunus has been diagnosed with diabetes and hepatitis C and has reduced vision in her left eye. She has not received adequate medical care in prison and the authorities have refused to transfer her to a hospital. She has reported being threatened, harassed and ill-treated after asking for medical care.
“During their time in detention, despite their health deteriorating, the authorities have refused them access to adequate medical treatment. This must cease and they must be given the proper medical care they require,” said Asatiani.