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Almost a year ago today, I had my last phone call with Arif Yunus, a historian and independent activist in Azerbaijan. I called him because he and his wife, Leyla, had just been arrested. Leyla is one of Azerbaijan’s most high-profile human rights defenders. Arif, 60, was released for health reasons. Our conversation was brief, but enough for me to promise to try to get high-level policy-makers in Europe and the United States to call him, to show support.

Human rights activist, Leyla Yunus, at the French embassy in Baku on May 22, 2013, when she was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor of France. © 2013 Aziz Karimov

It didn’t help. Arif was arrested again a few days later, and both he and Leyla have been behind bars on bogus treason and other charges ever since. Preliminary hearings for the tax evasion and other economic charges start today.

Very little is known about what past year has been like for Arif, because he’s being held in a Ministry of National Security facility, one of the most closed institutions in the country.

In the past year Leyla, 59, has endured such indignities as being attacked by an inmate, interruptions in treatment for her severe diabetes and hepatitis C, and getting pulled by the hair by a prison guard. I’ve known Leyla for more than 20 years, and I think to her, the greatest indignity is being prevented from doing the human rights work she had been devoted to all these years.

And then there is the indignity of the show trial to which she and Arif will almost certainly be subjected. It’s difficult to imagine a fair trial for them. Two of three lawyers for Leyla were removed from the case following disciplinary action and a malicious prosecution against them; last week, one of them was permanently disbarred, and disbarrment hearings await for the other.

The trials against many of the dozens of government critics targeted in the sweeping crackdown of the past few years also bode poorly for a fair hearing for Leyla and Arif.  The April 2014 trial of Intigam Aliyev, who pioneered human rights litigation in Azerbaijan, and the 2013 trial of prominent political analyst Ilgar Mammadov are just two cases in point.

In August 2014, in one of the first letters to Arif from her prison cell, Leyla wrote: Well, after 36 years of our life together, we are now in different cells. In different places.

At trial they will be in the same place for the first time in a year. But it’s a place neither of them should ever have been in the first place.


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