A Baku court has sentenced Azerbaijani human rights activists Leyla Yunus to 8 1/2 years in jail and her severely ailing husband Arif to seven years after judging them guilty of economic crimes.
The verdict and jail terms handed down August 13 conclude a trial branded as a travesty of justice by the two defendants and by international human rights groups.
Speaking before the verdict, Leyla Yunus told the court that a jail sentence would be a death sentence for herself and her husband due to their ill health.
"You have issued a death sentence for us," she told the court after the prosecutor asked the judge for lengthy jail terms. "Neither mine nor Arif's health will let us stay in jail for a long time."
She also said that the couple was being punished for their human rights work.
"Azerbaijan continues on the path of Soviet fascism," she told the court. "Today in Azerbaijan, anyone who tries to challenge the dictatorship is faced with repression."
The state prosecutor had requested an 11-year sentence for Leyla Yunus -- who was accused of economic crimes including fraud, tax evasion, and illegal business activities -- and a nine-year sentence for Arif, who was accused of fraud.
As the day's proceedings began, Arif Yunus told the court to "call the executioners and read out the verdict." He then collapsed.
During the couple's trial, which began July 27, Arif has been barely able to sit up and has had to receive medical care, including injections.
The court has refused repeated defense requests to release him to house arrest to receive treatment. He is diagnosed with a heart condition and has suffered two strokes over the past 18 months.
Human rights activists and independent journalists were again refused admission to the courtroom on August 13, as they have been throughout the trial. However, diplomats from some foreign embassies were admitted.
Documenting Political Prisoners
Leyla Yunus, 59, is the founding director of the unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku and a vocal critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record. Prior to her arrest in July last year, she had been working on a project documenting political prisoners in the country.
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 which Armenian-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s. He has been held separately from his wife since his arrest last August.
Both of the Yunuses are advocates of peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They have been accused of treason as well as economic crimes over aspects of their work, with the treason charges to be decided in a future trial.
The Yunuses, who deny guilt, call all charges against them politically motivated.
The United States and European Union, as well as international groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights, have condemned the pretrial detention of the couple, during which the health of both has reportedly worsened.
The couple's daughter, Dinara, said in June that her mother has diabetes and Hepatitis C.
As the verdict was announced August 13, Dinara Yunus wrote on her Facebook page: "My parents are sentenced to death today -- at their last meeting."
The verdict sparked international concern and condemnation from rights groups and foreign officials.
The British Foreign Office expressed “grave concern” following the sentencing of the Yunuses.
“A number of aspects of the conduct of the trial reinforced the impression that the verdict was politically motivated. These included restrictions on diplomats and other observers accessing the court room,” Britain's Minister for Europe, David Lidington, said in an August 13 statement.
Lidington said he is “deeply troubled” by the sentencing and called the “apparent deterioration” of the couple’s health in pre-trial detention over the past year “particularly worrying.”
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States is “deeply troubled” by the prison sentences.
“The charges appear to be solely connected with their human rights work and participation in constructive people-to-people programs aiming to ease tensions and build confidence in the region,” Kirby said in a statement. “We are further troubled by reports of irregularities during the judicial process.”
He said the United States urges Azerbaijan to release the couple “immediately on compassionate grounds” due to concerns for their health and that “it is in Azerbaijan’s interest to meet its international commitments to uphold the universal rights of all its citizens.”
Officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) offered more forceful denunciations of the verdict.
Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, messaged on Twitter that "Azerbaijan's authorities reach new low in sentencing of Leyla and Arif Yunus."
Isabel Santos, chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, said in a statement that she is “deeply saddened to learn of today’s politically motivated court decision to lock away one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent and courageous human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus, and her husband, Arif.”
“Azerbaijani authorities apparently know no shame in violating the basic OSCE standards that should have protected the Yunuses, such as respect for human rights, freedom of speech and rule of law,” Santos said.
“The anti-democratic free fall continues in Baku, and I urge the government to immediately reverse this trend,” she said.
HRW called the verdict a "total travesty."
The Azerbaijani "government should quash it and immediately free them," Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division, wrote on Twitter.
Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith condemned the verdict and said: "The charges brought against the Yunuses for their peaceful efforts on behalf of many other political prisoners – including journalists and lawyers – are yet another indication that the Government of Azerbaijan is out to erase all forms of free expression and dissent.”
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.