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Baku Court Refuses To Release Arif Yunus To House Arrest

  • RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

Azerbaijani rights activists Leyla Yunus (left) and her husband Arif Yunus. (file photo)

Azerbaijani rights activists Leyla Yunus (left) and her husband Arif Yunus. (file photo)

A Baku court has refused a motion by defense lawyers for jailed Azerbaijani human rights activist Layla Yunus and her husband Arif to release the ailing Arif to house arrest.

The refusal came as the Yunuses appeared in court on July 27 for the first day of their trial on charges of economic crimes -- including tax evasion, fraud, and illegal business activities -- and treason.

The Yunuses, who deny guilt, say the charges against them are politically motivated.

The court also rejected a defense motion to exclude the names of some witnesses from the trial proceedings.

Layla Yunus accused the prosecutor and witnesses of telling lies and said she did not know and had never seen some of those introduced as witnesses against the couple.

She also called the accusations against her husband "nonsense" and protested to the judge that she had not been allowed to speak at the couple's preliminary hearing on July 15, when the court rejected a motion by defense lawyers to dismiss the case.

Representatives of foreign diplomatic missions, human rights activists, and journalists gathered outside the courthouse for the start of the trial but most were not admitted into the building. RFE/RL correspondents on the scene report that the only journalists allowed into the courtroom were those from pro-government outlets.

Layla Yunus, who has been held in pretrial detention since her arrest in July last year, is the founding director of the unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku and a vocal critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record. She also has been actively involved for years in people-to-people diplomacy with Armenian rights activists, winning several international prizes and honors for her human rights activities.

WATCH: Journalists Barred From Trial Of Azerbaijani Rights Activists

Arif Yunus has been held separately from his wife since his arrest in August. He 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 which Armenian-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.

The United States and European Union, as well as international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights, have condemned the incarceration of the couple and demanded their immediate release.

Both the Yunuses are reportedly in ill health.

During a break in the preliminary hearing on July 15, Layla told reporters that Arif, 60, has a head tumor that could be cancerous but is being denied medical attention in jail. She was then ordered to keep away from the media in the courtroom.

The couple's daughter, Dinara, said in June that her mother, 59, has diabetes and Hepatitis C and that the health of both her parents had gotten worse during their incarceration.

Yunus, who has published several open letters to her husband since their detention, has expressed mounting fear that she and her spouse, who also suffers from heart disease, may not live to see their release.

In October 2014 she wrote: "I clearly understand their goal is not just destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it."

In March 2015 Yunus predicted that she and her husband will face "circus" trials later this year and receive 10-15 year sentences.

The Yunuses are 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.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on material from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku