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Leyla & Arif Yunus

After a year in jail, human rights activist Leyla Yunus and her historian husband Arif have been sentenced to jail time after being convicted on trumped up charges of treason, tax evasion and fraud. It is a warning to others who dare to challenge the government.

AP Photo/Aziz Karimov

In a March 2015 letter from prison to her husband, Arif Yunus, who was also imprisoned, Leyla Yunus wrote:

"I have not written to you for a long time. They have surrounded me with a thick barrier. They fear my words more than the bullets."

On 13 August 2015, Leyla Yunus, a human rights activist, was sentenced to 8 ½ years in prison, and her historian husband, Arif, to 7 years, in what has been described as a show trial. Convicted on trumped up charges of treason, tax evasion and fraud, it is a warning to others who dare to challenge the government. Both are in very poor health, and there are fears that they may not survive in prison.

Leyla Yunus, 59, is director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy set up in 1995 to promote and defend women's rights, end politically motivated prosecutions and forcible evictions, and resolve the conflict in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian backed separatists in the 1990s. Arif Yunus, 60, is a historian specialising in the region. Prior to her detention Leyla Yunus had also been working on a project documenting political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Leyla was granted the Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur at the French embassy in Baku in 2013 in recognition of her work.

On 30 July 2014, the couple were arrested. Having recently suffered two strokes and in frail health, Arif was to freed to await trial, while Leyla was sentenced to a three month detention order. Ignoring warnings not to give interviews or else be returned to prison, Arif immediately went to the media to condemn their arrests. He told Human Rights Watch that they were accused of being spies for Armenia, a charge that he described as 'humiliating and absurd'. They were also accused of espionage, running an unregistered NGO and failing to pay taxes. On 5 August, Arif was rearrested on his way to deliver a food parcel to Leyla who suffers severe diabetes. Both remained detained until their convictions a year later.

The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety reported in July 2014 on how state media smear campaigns police raids, seizures of equipment, closure of bank accounts and intimidation of NGO workers are all methods used by the authorities to stamp down on civil society. Yunus' Institute for Peace and Democracy has long suffered retribution for its activities, notably in 2011 when its offices – alongside those of two other NGOs – were demolished without warning to make way for a government land clearance project. The Institute had been campaigning against forced seizure of land for development.

The couple's recent problems had been brewing for several months. In April 2014, they were apprehended at Baku airport as they attempted to leave the country. Their passports were taken and they were interrogated for 24 hours before being subpoenaed to appear as witnesses in the case of a journalist who had been deported from Turkey on accusation of treason. In the intervening months, the couple were repeatedly called for interrogation which they refused to do, demanding that first their passports must be returned. Just a day before their arrest, Leyla Yunus had published an open letter to President Aliyev titled 'Who Are You Afraid of, Mr President?' protesting the arrests of youth activists.

The trial against the couple opened on 30 July 2015, exactly a year after their arrest, a trial described as a 'circus' where relatives and friends were told they could not observe because there was 'insufficient' room. Amnesty International describes how Arif Yunus fainted during the court hearings. He had suffered two strokes since the harassment and subsequent arrest in 2014. Concern is growing that they are not receiving essential medical treatment for their illnesses. Leyla in particular has written of her fears that neither would survive the years in prison.

Last Updated: 19 August 2015


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