BAKU (RFR/RL) – A Baku court has sentenced Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus to 8 1/2 years in prison and sentenced her severely ailing husband Arif to seven years.
The verdict concludes a trial branded as a travesty of justice by the two defendants and by international human rights groups.
Prosecutors havd asked for 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 Yunus, who was accused of fraud.
As the all-day proceedings opened, Arif Yunus told the court, “I call on the executioners to do whatever they want.” He then collapsed.
During the couple’s trial, which began on July 27, Arif has been barely able to sit up and has had to receive medical care, including injections.
The court refused repeated defense requests to release him to house arrest to receive treatment. He has been diagnosed with a heart condition and suffered two strokes over the past 18 months.
Representatives of foreign diplomatic missions, human rights activists, and independent journalists were again refused admission to the courtroom on August 13, as they were throughout the proceedings.
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. 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 deny all charges, calling 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 had diabetes and hepatitis C.
HRW said on August 6 that to proceed with the trial given the ill-health of both defendants was “despicable.”
“Leyla and Arif Yunus need medical care, not prison,” said Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director. “Bringing an elderly man who is so sick he can’t even sit up in the courtroom only exposes this farce for what it is — a political show trial.”
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.