BAKU -- Human rights defender Arif Yunus, whose case attracted worldwide attention when he and his wife were arrested in Azerbaijan in 2014 on suspicion of spying for Armenia, has been released from jail due to his deteriorating health.
The Baku Court of Appeals on November 12 granted Yunus's release at the request of his lawyers.
In August, Yunus was sentenced by a Baku court to seven years in prison after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion. His wife, Leyla Yunus, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison on the same charges.
Neither has begun serving their sentences, although they remained jailed, and their cases relating to charges of treason are still pending.
Yunus's legal situation remains unchanged despite his release. Before leaving the courthouse, he was required to sign a document that bars him from leaving Baku.
The sentencings of the couple, both of whom suffer from health problems and worked for the unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku, were denounced as a travesty of justice by international human rights groups.
The request for Arif Yunus's release was based on results of a medical examination conducted by German physicians that said his extremely high blood pressure could cause a heart attack.
Arif Yunus after his release on November 12
After leaving the courthouse in Baku, Yunus told journalists that his wife's medical condition was even worse than his. He said that Leyla Yunus has hepatitis C, diabetes, and kidney stones.
"If they send her to the prison for women, it will kill her," Arif Yunus said, addressing the prospect that his wife could be ordered to begin serving the sentence handed down to her in August.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a November 12 statement that the release of Arif Yunus was a "positive step" but did not mention or allude to allegations that the Azerbaijani authorities are targeting the couple due to their political beliefs.
"We hope the Azerbaijani government will give similar consideration to other prisoners reportedly facing severe health challenges," Kirby said.
Leyla Yunus, 59, is the founding director of the Peace and Democracy Institute and a vocal critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record. Prior to her arrest in July 2014, she had been working on a project documenting political prisoners in the country.
Leyla Yunus (file photo)
Arif, 60, is a well-known historian and researcher of conflicts across the Caucasus, focusing mainly on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian-populated region that Armenian-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.
Both of the Yunuses are advocates of peace and reconciliation between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been in conflict for more than two decades over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Yunuses, who deny guilt, say all the charges against them are politically motivated.
Leyla Yunus is among several activists, journalists, and government critics who are behind bars in Azerbaijan, where rights groups say President Ilham Aliyev has assiduously pursued a campaign to silence dissent.