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(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release and stop the prosecution of Leyla and Arif Yunus, elderly human rights defenders who are both in grave health, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 3, 2015, Arif Yunus’s blood pressure spiked, and he lost consciousness while standing trial in court. He received medical care during subsequent hearings on August 4 and 5, but his condition is poor.

Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s leading human rights activists, is head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif, is a historian who was an expert adviser for the group.

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
Arif Yunus. Authorities arrested Leyla Yunus in July 2014 and her husband, Arif Yunus, a well-known historian, in August 2014 on charges of treason, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship.  © 2014 Radio Azadliq / RFE/RL
“The decision to lock up and prosecute Leyla and Arif Yunus was already a travesty of justice, but to pursue the trial given their poor health is despicable” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bringing an elderly man who is so sick he can’t even sit up into a courtroom only exposes this farce for what it is – a political show trial.”

The Yunuses are on trial on charges of tax evasion and other economic crimes, punishable by up to 12 years in prison. They have also been charged with treason, for which the authorities have said they will be tried later.

Elchin Gambarov, a lawyer for Leyla Yunus, told Human Rights Watch that medical workers administered injections to Arif Yunus before and during the hearings on August 4 and 5, but that Yunus, who walks with difficulty, could barely sit up and spent the trial lying in his wife’s lap in the glass-enclosed defendants’ cage.

During a preliminary hearing on July 15, Leyla Yunus also told reporters that her husband has a walnut-size visible lump on his head that has not been diagnosed or properly treated. In the past 18 months, Arif Yunus has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has suffered two strokes.

The trial, which began on July 27, is already in its final stages, with the prosecution’s closing statement expected on August 6. The defense requested 10 days to prepare its closing, and the judge is expected to rule on that request soon. Authorities have prevented nearly all independent journalists and observers from attending the trial. A handful of diplomats have been allowed to observe.

Authorities arrested Leyla Yunus on July 30, 2014, and have kept her in custody since then, despite her serious health problems and her credible allegations that she has faced harassment and ill-treatment in detention. She suffers from severe diabetes and Hepatitis C and requires regular treatment, including a special diet. Gamborov, her lawyer, reported on July 31 that she was suffering from abdominal pain, spasms, and vomiting but did not receive appropriate medical care.

Authorities charged Arif Yunus together with his wife on July 30, 2014, but released him under police supervision because of his poor health. Police took him into custody on August 5, 2014, while he was on his way to deliver food and medicine to his wife in detention, for allegedly violating the terms of his house arrest, including by giving media interviews and meeting with someone who was under criminal investigation.

The arrest and trial of the couple are part of Azerbaijan’s fierce campaign of arrests, imprisonment, and intimidation against human rights defenders, independent journalists, bloggers, and opposition political activists.

In April 2015, Azerbaijan courts convicted two other human rights defenders, Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov, and sentenced them to seven-and-a-half years and six-and-half years of prison, respectively. On appeal, Jafarov’s sentence was reduced by three months.

Preliminary hearings against an investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, also accused of economic crimes and of driving a person to attempt suicide, began in late July, and the trial is expected to recommence on August 7.

“Leyla and Arif Yunus need medical care, not prison,” Williamson said. “Azerbaijan’s international partners should flatly and unanimously condemn this mockery of justice.”

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