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HRHN condemns the sentencing of Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus

Today, a court in Azerbaijan sentenced Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus to many years in prison. They are long-time civil society actors. Their sentencing today is a symbol of the targeted repression against leading civil society voices in Azerbaijan since the presidential election of October 2013.
“The Azerbaijani authorities are doing everything they can to shut down independent civil society. This sentence stands as an example of the criminalisation of lawful activities to promote human rights. It is simply appalling.” reacted Ane Tusvik Bonde, Regional Manager for Eastern Europe and Caucasus at the Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF).
The Court of Grave Crimes in Baku sentenced Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus to respectively 8 years and six months imprisonment and 7 years imprisonment, on charges of fraud, illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion. In addition to the sentences, the court requested confiscation of their property and bank accounts. All property is to be transferred to the State. Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus were arrested on 30 July 2014. Arif Yunus was released and then arrested again on 5 August 2014. The couple remained in pre-trial detention since.

From joint report of Freedom Now and Human Rights House Network, Breaking point in Azerbaijan, Washington, DC and Geneva, May 2015

Those charges are similar to the ones upheld against other leading human rights defenders, especially Anar Mammadli and Rasul Jafarov, as well as against prominent human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. The charge of treason has not yet been considered by the court and is now in a separate case against Leyla Yunus, with journalist Rauf Mirkadirov.

The court hearings in the case of Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus were held in small courtrooms, preventing many independent observers and trial monitors of having access to the hearings. It was a de facto closed doors regime: Repeatedly, the Court said that the hearing room was full. In fact, the rooms were either filled by the authorities to prevent internationals from entering the room and observing the legal proceedings or simply remained half empty. In some cases, representatives from embassies were allowed access to the room only without their interpreters. The Human Rights House Network indeed sent observers to the different hearings in the Yunus’ case, who were however repeatedly prevented from having access to the rooms in which the hearings were taking place.

The proceedings against Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus were also marked by the harassment and legal persecution against their lawyers. The prosecution indeed called upon members of their legal team to b witnesses for the prosecution, thereby precluding them from acting as defence counsel. On 6 November 2014, Alaif Hasanov, Leyla Yunus’ lawyer, was sentenced to 240 hours of community service due to his public statements about the detention conditions of his client. Alaif Hasanov was then stripped from his membership of the Bar Association. “Pressure against human rights lawyers has sadly become normal in Azerbaijan. The authorities remain silent to calls to stop harassing, persecuting, disbarring and imprisoning lawyers,” commented Ane Tusvik Bonde.


Worrying health situation of Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus

“We stand along the daughter of Leyla and Arif Yunus, Dinara Yunus, who is campaigning relentlessly to get her parents out of prison. She is not asking for much. Simply that her parents can get out of prison and have access to the medical care they so deeply need,” further commented Ane Tusvik Bonde.

On 3 August, Arif Yunus fainted during the hearing. His blood pressure rose to 260/140. Since 31 March 2015, Leyla Yunus started seeing dark spots in front of her left eye, followed by poor vision in the same eye. These are just the latest known elements about the couple’s health condition, which has continuously deteriorated since their imprisonment.

Arif Yunus suffers from a severe case of hypertension, since before his detention. Leyla Yunus also has a number of serious health conditions, including diabetes and medical problems related to her kidneys. The couple has been denied adequate medical treatment in prison.


Internationals need to voice their support for human rights in Azerbaijan

“Whilst Azerbaijani authorities target those who defend human rights, international voices need to support them. We hence highly value that the Member of the European Parliament Katy Piri has gone to Baku in July 2015 for the first hearing in the case against Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus,” said Ane Tusvik Bonde.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution calling for the release of political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, human rights defenders Leyla Yunus, and her husband Arif Yunus, Anar Mammadli and Rasul Jafarov, amongst others. “More needs to be done though by the Council of Europe and the European Union, especially by their delegations in Baku,” said Ane Tusvik Bonde. 

In its joint report with Freedom Now, HRHN documented Azerbaijan’s “history of arbitrary detention.” In fact, the international community has been trying to address Azerbaijan’s use of arbitrary detention for more than two decades. Despite a systematic practice to the contrary, the Azerbaijani government has publicly committed itself to ending arbitrary detention inside the country. Most notably, as part of the accession process in joining the Council of Europe, the government was called on to end the wrongful imprisonment of activists in the country.

In a joint statement, States also denounced the detention of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan at the United Nations Human Rights Council, following multiple calls issued by UN special rapporteurs.

“We call upon international voices to express their support to imprisoned human rights defenders in Azerbaijan and to support their relatives and colleagues continuing their work in this repressive environment. All political leaders and institutions should publicly and privately call for the immediate and unconditional release of all leading civil society actors, including Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus,” said Ane Tusvik Bonde.

The Council of Europe and the UN also need to take concrete action: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe should suspend the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation and the UN Human Rights Council should request that the High Commissioner for Human Rights to present, in an interactive dialogue, a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and the environment for human rights defenders in the country.

“Those are minimal measures needed, in addition to targeted sanctions against those responsible for the misuse of law to imprison human rights defenders, journalists and activists, including restricting rights to travel abroad, as Leyla Yunus had requested before her imprisonment in August 2014,” concluded Ane Tusvik Bonde.



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