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(Berlin) – A court in Baku will hear the appeal against the convictions of the prominent rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus on October 12, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The flawed convictions, reached after a trial that flouted fair trial norms, should not be allowed to stand and the authorities should immediately drop all outstanding charges and release the couple.

“The court can take a step toward restoring rule of law and justice in Azerbaijan,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Recognizing that the convictions of Leyla and Arif Yunus are incompatible with Azerbaijan’s human rights obligations would be the first, vital step toward reversing the terrible miscarriage of justice that they have endured.”

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
Leyla Yunus was sentenced on August 13 to eight-and-a-half years in prison, and her husband, Arif, to seven years after a politically motivated prosecution and a trial that fell far short of international standards. 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 Arif Yunus is a historian who was an expert adviser for the group.

Both suffer from serious, chronic health conditions and require urgent medical care. Their daughter has told Human Rights Watch that neither is in a medical facility, despite their need for treatment, and that both have made credible allegations of ill-treatment while in custody. In a September 30 statement made by telephone from detention to the Turan Information Agency, Leyla Yunus said she feared repercussions for refusing a blood test. She said that she was put into a punishment cell for refusing the test in December 2014. She suffers from severe diabetes, Hepatitis C, gallstones, and hypertension.

Arif Yunus has a heart condition and suffers from severe hypertension. He suffered two strokes when he was temporarily detained at the Baku airport in April 2014. During an August 3 hearing of his trial, he lost consciousness when his blood pressure spiked. He was heavily medicated throughout, with doctors standing by to administer injections if necessary. He could barely sit up or follow the proceedings and lay in the glass defendants’ cage with his head in his wife’s lap. The judge did not postpone the proceedings to allow him to receive the treatment he apparently needed.

“Leyla and Arif Yunus need treatment and should never have been in prison in the first place,” Denber said. “The conduct of their trial given their poor health exposed it for the mockery of justice it was.”

After a rushed trial, which began on July 27 and which many independent observers and journalists were prevented from attending, 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.

Before the Yunuses’ arrest, neither of the groups nor their representatives received any warnings, inspections, audits, or the like from government agencies.

The prosecution of the Yunuses is part of the government’s vicious and sweeping crackdown on perceived critics and independent groups. The Yunuses were arrested in the summer of 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.

Since 2012, the government has harassed, intimidated, and arrested dozens of human rights activists, independent journalists, political figures, and bloggers. Many of the country’s most outspoken activists are behind bars. On September 1, 2015, a Baku court sentenced the independent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova to seven-and-a-half years in prison for tax evasion and economic crimes after a purely political prosecution, flawed trial, and campaign to discredit her. Ismayilova is a 2015 recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism, in recognition of her exemplary courage as a journalist and human rights activist in the face of the unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

Shirin Abbasov, a cameraman and contributor to Meydan TV, an independent online channel, has been in unlawful incommunicado detention since September 16. In September, numerous other journalists were harassed, detained, and interrogated.

“Azerbaijan’s partners should make it clear that their relationship with Baku will depend on the government’s commitment to rule of law,” Denber said. “So long as Leyla and Arif Yunus remain in prison and face further bogus charges of treason, that commitment is clearly non-existent.”

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