(Berlin) – A court in Baku on August 13, 2015, convicted the human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus who had faced politically motivated prosecution for economic crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Leyla Yunus was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison and her husband, Arif Yunus, to seven years, following a purely politically motivated prosecution and a trial that fell far short of international standards. The Azerbaijani authorities should immediately move to set aside the convictions, drop all outstanding charges, and release the elderly, ailing couple, Human Rights Watch said today.

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

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

“The fact that the verdicts against Leyla and Arif Yunus were totally predictable does not make them any less a travesty,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Yunuses never should have been arrested, let alone imprisoned and prosecuted. The Azerbaijani authorities should now do the right thing, have the convictions and sentences set aside, and turn a page on the appalling crackdown against human rights defenders, of which the Yunuses are victims.”

The couple has also been charged with treason, for which the authorities have said they will be tried later.

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.

One of the Yunuses’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that in his final statement, Arif Yunus, 60, said that he has been medicated throughout the trial with strong injections and could barely understand anything, but that the court paid no heed. He said the trial had been “rushed and strenuous, more than a man as sick as he could bear.” When he finished speaking, he cried out, grabbed the back of his head, where he has an undiagnosed lump, and stumbled.

In her final statement, Leyla Yunus, 59, compared the proceedings with those during the Soviet era. She said that the government was punishing her and her husband for their human rights work, and that they were both prepared for the worst.

During the one-and-a-half hours of the reading of the verdict, a Human Rights Watch representative was in the courtroom, and observed with shock the extremely frail and ill appearance of the two human rights defenders. Arif Yunus was unable to sit up, but had to lie on a bench provided in the glass cage where defendants sit, with his head on his wife’s lap. In the stifling courtroom, Leyla Yunus was fanning her husband the whole time and looked close to fainting herself.

Leyla Yunus was found guilty of swindling, tax evasion, forgery, and illegal business activity for running two unregistered human rights groups through a registered organization from 2006 through 2014. Yunus and her colleagues had tried unsuccessfully to register the two groups, but conditions for and regulation of civil society and independent voices in Azerbaijan are such that the authorities can arbitrarily interfere with which organizations are able to operate and not, and make it very difficult for human rights groups to function. One of the Yunuses’ lawyers, Elchin Gambarov, told Human Rights Watch that during the investigation Yunus told officials she was prepared to pay any tax that was owed.

Before the Yunuses’ arrest in 2014, none of the groups or their representatives received any warnings, inspections, audits, or the like from government agencies.

“If there were irregularities in the way Yunus ran her groups, the government could have pursued them through noncriminal measures,” Denber said. “But instead the authorities arrested them and went directly to the most serious criminal charges, despite their age and ill health.”

The timing and circumstances of the criminal charges indicate that they are a thin pretext aimed at smearing the Yunuses, stopping and punishing their work, and intimidating other activists, Human Rights Watch said.  

Gambarov said that throughout the trial the judge did not even attempt to maintain the appearance of due process, denying even minor technical motions, such as the defense’s request to allow Leyla and Arif Yunus to sit with their lawyers to be able to confer with them during the proceedings. Instead, they sat in the glass-enclosed defendants’ cage. The authorities prevented most independent observers, including journalists and supporters of the Yunuses from attending the hearings. Gambarov said it was the first time in his practice, during which time he has defended many people on political charges, that the verdict in such a case has been delivered the same day as closing arguments.

Both of the Yunuses suffer chronic health conditions, and their health has deteriorated significantly during a year in detention. Both have also made credible allegations of ill-treatment in detention. Arif Yunus, who suffers from hypertension and recently had two strokes, walks with great difficulty and could barely sit up during the trial. During a hearing on August 3, he lost consciousness when his blood pressure spiked. He received injections before and during subsequent hearings to enable him to be present, but the judge did not postpone the proceedings to allow him to receive the more extensive treatment he apparently needs. 

The case against the Yunuses is part of the government’s sweeping crackdown on perceived critics and independent groups. The Yunuses were arrested in summer 2014, several months after the Azerbaijani government opened criminal investigations against several international donors and froze the accounts of dozens of independent groups that were their grantees.

Over the last three years, the government has harassed, intimidated, and arrested dozens of human rights activists, independent journalists, political figures, and bloggers. In April, courts sentenced the human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev on similar charges, and they are serving prison sentences of six years and three months, and seven-and-a-half years, respectively.

The trial of an independent journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, accused of economic crimes and driving a person to commit suicide, began in late July, and is ongoing.

“Azerbaijan’s partners should speak with one voice in condemning this assault on human rights and the rule of law,” Denber said. “They should make it clear that business as usual depends on the Azerbaijani government ending its repression of perceived critics and that the first step is freeing Leyla and Arif Yunus.”