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'You Have Issued a Death Sentence': Azerbaijan Activists Condemned to Years in Prison

Leyla Yunus, the 59-year-old director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, went on trial in July with her husband Arif. The two were charged with offences that observers have labeled "trumped-up."
Photo via Dinara Yunus

Azerbaijani human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus have been sentenced to eight-and-a-half and seven years in prison respectively, after spending a year detained without trial.

Leyla, the 59-year-old director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, went on trial at the end of July with her husband Arif. The two were charged with offences, including large-scale fraud and tax evasion, that observers labeled as "trumped-up."


In her final statements to Baku's Heinous Crimes Court, Leyla said: "Today in Azerbaijan, anyone who tries to challenge the dictatorship is faced with repression."

Related: Azerbaijan's 'Show Trials' Are Once Again Targeting Rights Activists

Referring to their poor health, Leyla said that this was a "death sentence" for them. "This government is afraid of a word. This trial showed that all of you are afraid of words. This is why you chose to hold this trial behind closed doors, not letting any journalists to come in and do their reporting."

When the judge asked whether she was finished, Leyla said: "Yes executioner, we are done, you can carry on your duty."

Arif suffers from high blood pressure and is believed to have a cancerous tumor on his head, while Leyla has diabetes and Hepatitis C.

In his statement Arif thanked the diplomats of various embassies who attended the trial throughout its duration.

"Your names will go down the history. But so will ours. I do not regret anything. The most important thing is that a human lives his life with dignity. This is our land, and we must die here," he said, as reported by Azadliq Radiosu.

He concluded: "Call the executioners and read out the verdict."

"The unprecedented speed with which the Yunus trial was carried out is appalling and tells us a lot about its quality. The judgment is full of inaccuracies due to a total lack of examination of the evidence provided. Violations of international standards of the right to a fair trial were obvious," Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), said in a statement sent to VICE News. "It is a shameful verdict that was unfortunately foreseeable since the beginning of their pre-trial detention one year ago."


Levan Asatiani, campaigner at Amnesty International, called the sentence and the charges "absurd."

"We urge the government to quash these convictions. Leyla and Arif Yunus are prisoners of conscience and they must be immediately and unconditionally released. The judicial system has once again revealed itself to be no more than a cynical tool by which President Ilham Aliyev crushes any dissent or criticism of his regime. His government's human rights record is simply shocking."

Related: 'Dying Behind Bars': Human Rights Activists Jailed and Deported Before Azerbaijan's European Games

The couple is also facing prosecution for a further charge - they have been accused of spying for Armenia.

The Yunus' only daughter, Dinara Yunus, is currently resident in the Netherlands, where she has asylum, meaning she couldn't travel back for the trial.

She spoke to VICE News when the trial began, saying that she didn't expect it to be fair, "otherwise my parents would have been out already," and adding that the only glimmer of happiness was that her parents - married for 37 years and inseparable as she was growing up - had finally been reunited.

"I also heard that my parents were holding each other's hands for an hour when they met inside the courtroom," she said. "It makes me somehow happy that they saw each other but it makes me sad at the same time."

She added: "I want them to be free and safe and get medical treatment. I don't want them to die there, I want them to be with me. They're the only family I have.

"This isn't how human rights defenders should be treated. People who help others and have dedicated their lives to human rights."

The Yunuses aren't the only prominent Azerbaijanis currently serving jail time. Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova is currently on trial too. In April, another human rights campaigner, Rasul Jafarov, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, while human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev received seven and a half years. Others still incarcerated include Hilal Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, and journalist Rauf Mirqadirov.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd