Leyla Yunus is free. I’ve been waiting for 17 months to wake up to that news. I cannot imagine the joy and relief she and her family – her husband, Arif, also unjustly prisoned, was released last month – must be feeling now.
But Yunus should never have been behind bars in the first place. She has been one of the true, towering figures of Azerbaijan’s human rights movement since the end of the Soviet era.
Azerbaijani authorities arrested her in July 2014 amidst an unprecedented, sweeping crackdown on government critics, including human rights defenders, independent groups, bloggers, political activists, and the like. The crackdown has decimated Azerbaijan’s once thriving civil society.
In August 2015, a court sentenced Leyla Yunus to eight and half years, and Arif Yunus to seven, of prison on tax evasion and other economic crimes. Treason charges against her were also filed but were suspended.
Leyla Yunus has diabetes, Hepatitis C, and other chronic health problems, and her health deteriorated sharply in prison. At trial, she was so frail she was nearly unrecognizable. Last month, her digestive system seemed to be completely failing.
Leyla Yunus has been released on five years’ parole. I hope the government will decide to vacate the criminal convictions against her and Arif, that they can get the health care they desperately need, and that their family can have the space to overcome the crushing ordeal of the past year and half.
I can’t help thinking of the many others unjustly behind bars, and their families too, who are still coping with such an ordeal. They include Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Khadija Ismayilova, Ilgar Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, Tofiq Yagublu, and Rauf Mirgadirov. All of their convictions should be vacated, and they should be allowed to pursue their activism unhindered. This is what Azerbaijan’s international partners should be pushing for. This is surely what Leyla Yunus would want as well.