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One Year After Release, Azerbaijani Activist Couple Frail But Defiant

  • Claire Bigg

"We were thrown in jail, beaten, tortured. They stole our health," says Leyla Yunus (left), pictured with Arif in Baku in December 2015. "They released us only because we were dying and they got scared."

"We were thrown in jail, beaten, tortured. They stole our health," says Leyla Yunus (left), pictured with Arif in Baku in December 2015. "They released us only because we were dying and they got scared."

Prison took a heavy toll on Leyla and Arif Yunus, Azerbaijan’s prominent husband-and-wife team of human rights defenders.

Almost one year after their release from jail, where they suffered what they say was unrelenting humiliation and torture, the couple have resumed their advocacy work from their new home in the Netherlands.

"Physically we are not well, but we have been doing this since Soviet times," says 61-year-old Arif Yunus. "How you feel is not the most important thing. What’s important is whether or not you can continue working."

Their prison ordeal has left deep wounds. They remain frail and say they are struggling to adjust to their new life abroad.

"It’s hard to start over at 60," says Leyla Yunus, who marked her 60th birthday weeks after being freed. "When you are forced to leave your homeland, a piece of your soul stays behind. We don't know what will happen to us now, but we will do our best."

The couple were detained in April 2014 and subsequently handed harsh prison terms on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and illegal business activities widely decried as bogus. Their trial sparked an international outcry, with rights groups branding it a travesty of justice and denouncing President Ilham Aliyev’s deepening campaign to muzzle dissent in the oil-rich Caucasus nation. The United States singled out the Yunuses by name in a call for Baku to release them and other jailed dissidents, and EU lawmakers urged the freeing of all Azerbaijani political prisoners.

The Yunuses were immediately separated following their detention, with Arif Yunus placed in solitary confinement. They served their sentences in different prisons but were eventually allowed to communicate, although they say they had to use coded language to avoid their letters being censored or confiscated by prison staff.

In happier times

In happier times

Arif Yunus was eventually released on November 12, 2015, on grounds of his failing health. Leyla Yunus, who suffers from diabetes, was freed several weeks later. Each was given a suspended sentence and five years' probation.

"We were thrown in jail, beaten, tortured. They stole our health," says Leyla Yunus. "They released us only because we were dying and they got scared."

She and her husband, a respected historian and scholar, have since reunited with their daughter in Amsterdam. But for the couple, who have been combating human rights abuses in Azerbaijan for three decades, the departure has felt like another punishment.

"We never wanted to leave," says Arif Yunus. "We considered ourselves soldiers on the front line."

The Yunuses say they resolved to emigrate after doctors in Baku, fearing retaliation from authorities, refused to give them medical treatment following their release.

"I wanted to have a CT scan, but doctors were scared, even though I was offering to pay," says Arif Yunus. "Even private clinics were scared."

Both sustained permanent damage to their health as a result of the violence they endured in prison, they say.

Leyla Yunus says she was severely beaten, denied proper medical care for her diabetes, threatened with rape, and dragged by her feet into solitary confinement without explanation. She has lost part of her vision in one eye.

WATCH: Leyla Yunus released from prison in early December 2015

Her husband still wears a splint on his left arm.

"They tied my hands behind my back, hung me up by the handcuffs, and beat me on the back and the neck with wet towels," he says. "This causes terrible pain in the wrists and in the back, and it twists the elbow joints."

In June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered the Azerbaijani state to pay the Yunuses 26,000 euros each ($28,950) in compensation for their treatment and the resulting "prolonged mental and physical suffering" in custody, and an additional 4,000 euros ($4,450) in lawyers’ fees.

The couple, however, say Azerbaijani authorities have failed to send them any money so far.

WATCH: Arif Yunus released from prison in November 2015

Arif Yunus, who suffers from chronic hypertension and is diagnosed with a heart condition, has had regular fainting episodes since his incarceration. He says his blood pressure soars and he suffers excruciating headaches whenever he recalls his time in prison.

"I can lose consciousness. I can have a stroke any moment,” he says. “My doctor told me that I’m doomed and that I could die any minute. He also told me that drugs won’t save me -- work will."

In Azerbaijan, the Yunuses and their unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute defended victims of human rights abuses, from unlawful arrests to forced evictions, and encouraged peace-building between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Those two neighbors fought a still-unresolved war between 1988 and 1994 over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in Azerbaijan.

The couple are still under investigation in Azerbaijan on charges of spying for Armenia.

As they have often in the past, the Yunuses have found solace in their work.

Together, they continue to gather information on politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan.

While they were behind bars, their daughter registered the Peace and Democracy Institute in Amsterdam. The group had been unable to obtain registration in Baku and the apartment it used as its office was bulldozed by authorities in 2011.

According to their findings, at least 166 people are currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan simply because of their views and a dozen dissidents are tortured to death every year in the days after their arrests.

The Yunuses are preparing to compile a second list naming specific Azerbaijani officials, prison staff, police, and judges responsible for jailing and torturing people on fabricated charges.

They also plan to write a book that Arif describes as "a testimony from witnesses." Sponsored by the European Endowment for Democracy, a joint initiative of EU institutions and member states, the book will look back at their 30-year crusade to document human rights violations in Azerbaijan and describe the abuses they themselves suffered in Azerbaijani prisons.

"What he saw, what we went through, must be told," says Leyla Yunus.

She and her husband say they have refused to apply for welfare benefits in the Netherlands and will only accept money paid for their work, so the book sponsorship is coming at a much-needed time.

In addition to their book project, the couple have actively taken part in pro-democracy events and recently paid a high-profile visit to the European Parliament.

They have also restarted their collaboration with a number of prominent international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Organization Against Torture, Front Line Defenders, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

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