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Rights Activist Leyla Yunus Freed From Jail In Azerbaijan

  • RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

Prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus has been freed from prison on grounds of her deteriorating health, although she and her fellow activist husband both face treason charges in a separate case.

More than a year into her custody, an appeals court in Baku on December 9 converted her 8 1/2-year jail sentence, handed down in August on charges that include fraud and tax evasion, into a suspended one.

The court placed her on probation for the next five years and maintained her guilty verdict, widely denounced as political retaliation for her work.

Yunus, 59, suffers from a number of ailments including diabetes and hepatitis C.

She has complained that she was severely beaten by prison guards since being detained in July 2014.

She appeared frail as she left the courtroom on December 9, walking with difficulty and leaning on her husband, Arif.

Arif Yunus was sentenced to seven years in prison on similar charges but was released in November, also on health grounds.

"I said in court that I was turned into prison dust," Leyla Yunus told reporters after her release. Quoting from 19th-century poet Fyodor Tyutchev, she added, "It's not given us to foretell how our words will echo through the ages, but [forgiveness] is given us as grace is given us."

Shortly after her release she paid a visit to her grandfather's grave, where she said her husband had proposed to her.

The court on December 9 also overturned a previous decision to confiscate one of the Yunus's two apartments registered under the name of their daughter, Dinara.

Leyla Yunus's lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, said the second apartment remains in the state's possession.

Sadigov said he was "not fully satisfied" with the decision of the appeals court.

"We had asked for all the charges to be dismissed," he said.

The prosecution of Leyla and Arif Yunus has been condemned by the international community as part of a deepening crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan.

Numerous other activists, journalists, and government critics -- including investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova -- remain imprisoned in Azerbaijan on charges that Western officials and international rights groups have called politically motivated.

Baku has repeatedly rejected the accusations, insisting that the cases in question are strictly criminal in nature.

The Yunuses, who had worked for the unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku, face treason charges in a separate case stemming from allegations of spying for Baku's archrival, Armenia.

Amnesty International has described the couple as "prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for their legitimate human rights work and criticism of the government."

Their release from incarceration follows recent efforts by their daughter, Dinara, to increase Western pressure on Aliyev's government over their case.

Dinara Yunus met with U.S. officials and prominent rights advocates during a trip to Washington in October. She told an October 28 briefing on Capitol Hill that she feared her parents would "die behind bars" due to their failing health.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that Washington welcomed Leyla Yunus's release and "will continue to seek opportunities to advance all areas of our relationship, including security, energy, and democracy and human rights."

"Together with the November release of her husband, Arif, we view it as a positive step, and we look forward to more such steps," Kirby said.

He added that Washington "will continue to seek opportunities to advance all areas of our relationship, including security, energy, and democracy and human rights, in partnership with the Azerbaijani government and people."

European officials also welcomed the decision to release Leyla Yunus.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called it an "important humanitarian step," while EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini's spokeswoman said it was "a welcome and positive humanitarian gesture."

"The European Union, at the same time, hopes that further steps will follow, and we are ready to further deepen and broaden our relationship with Azerbaijan," said the spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz called Yunus's release "wonderful news for all the defenders of human rights in Azerbaijan and worldwide," but cautioned that Yunus and her husband had been released "only conditionally."

"The European Parliament reiterates its request for the charges against them to be dropped and their names fully cleared," Schulz said in a statement, adding that Azerbaijani authorities should "continue on this path and show good will by releasing the remaining prisoners of conscience."

In Washington, U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- also known as the Helsinki Commission -- called Yunus's release "long overdue" and a "welcome first step -- but only a first step."

"The government of Azerbaijan must go further and now make immediate arrangements for her medical treatment," Smith told RFE/RL in a statement. "Leyla and her husband, Arif, are gravely ill, and it is the responsibility of the government, which persecuted and imprisoned them unjustly, to see that they have top-quality care."

Smith added that "the spurious charges against Leyla and Arif must be dropped, and the Yunuses permitted to resume their peaceful efforts on behalf of human rights in Azerbaijan."

With reporting by RFE/RL's correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak