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Azerbaijan Seeks Long Prison Terms For Ailing Leyla, Arif Yunus

Leyla Yunus in an undated photograph
Leyla Yunus in an undated photograph

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'The Hardest Part Is I Can't See You' -- Azeri Activist's Prison Letter To Jailed Husband

With her health reportedly deteriorating, detained Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus has penned an open letter to her husband -- who himself was arrested and charged with treason shortly after her.
By RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- Azerbaijan's state prosecutor has asked a court in Baku to sentence human rights defender Leyla Yunus to 11 years in prison.

In a statement delivered to the Baku Court for Serious Crimes on August 6, the prosecutor also asked the court to sentence Leyla Yunus's husband, Arif Yunus, to nine years in prison. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) made a new call for the immediate release of the couple, who deny guilt and contend that the charges are politically motivated. 

After about a year in custody with their health deteriorating, they went on trial on July 27 on charges of fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal business activities. 

Treason charges against Leyla Yunus, 59, and Arif Yunus, 60, are expected to be addressed at a separate trial.

They are among dozens of activists, journalists, and government critics who have been jailed in Azerbaijan, where rights groups say President Ilham Aliyev is pursuing a persistent campaign to silence dissent.

The United States and European Union, as well as international groups such as HRW, Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights have condemned the incarceration of Leyla and Arif Yunus and demanded their release. 

"Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release and stop the prosecution of Leyla and Arif Yunus," HRW said in a statement on August 6.

"To lock up and prosecute Leyla and Arif Yunus was already a travesty of justice, but to pursue the trial given their poor health is despicable," the New York-based group quoted Hugh Williamson, its Europe and Central Asia director, as saying.

"Leyla and Arif Yunus need medical care, not prison," Williamson said. "Azerbaijan’s international partners should flatly and unanimously condemn this mockery of justice."

Arif Yunus lost consciousness in court on August 3. Doctors were called in each of the three subsequent days to give him injections in order to enable hearings to continue.

Arif Yunus in a photograph taken in July 2014
Arif Yunus in a photograph taken in July 2014

Both of the Yunuses have said they have been denied proper medical treatment while jailed in pretrial detention.

HRW said that Arif's condition is "poor."

In June, the couple's daughter Dinara told reporters her mother has diabetes and Hepatitis C and that the health of both her parents had gotten "worse and worse" since their arrests. 

Dinara Yunus said earlier that her father was in solitary confinement and that her mother had been attacked by officers and inmates and humiliated by doctors at the facility.

Leyla Yunus, the award-winning founding director of the Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku, has been actively involved for years in people-to-people diplomacy with Armenian rights activists.

She has been a vocal critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record.

Arif Yunus is a well-known historian and researcher of conflicts across the Caucasus, focusing primarily on the conflict in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated region that Armenian-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

A lawyer for Arif Yunus said on August 6 that the fraud charge against his client was vague and that prosecutors have not identified the alleged victim.

The couple's trial is to resume on August 10. It is unclear when the judge will reach a verdict.

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