Azerbaijan: Court Releases Arif Yunus as his Health Worsens

Published: 12 November 2015

Arif Yunus

By Igor Spaic

An Azerbaijani court has released a human rights defender whose imprisonment was condemned by human rights groups to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest.

Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE-RL) in Azerbaijan reports that political scientist and human rights activist Arif Yunus was transferred to house arrest by an Azerbaijani court on Thursday, upon a request by his lawyers due to his deteriorating health.

He signed a protocol stating he may not leave the country.

According to the Azerbaijani state-owned APA News Agency, Judge Vugar Mammadov at the Baku Court of Appeal heard the contents of a letter from the Main Medical Department of the Penitentiary Service attesting that German experts diagnosed Yunus with high blood pressure.

Yunus's lawyer then filed a petition for his release from prison, which the public prosecutor rejected.

The court, however, granted it.

Yunus's wife, an award-winning human rights activist, remains in prison.

On Aug. 13, the Baku Court of Serious Crimes sentenced Yunus and his wife Leyla – who was director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy - to lengthy prison terms on charges of fraud, running an illegal business, tax evasion, and falsifying documents.

Arif Yunus was sentenced to seven years in prison, while Leyla Yunus was given eight-and-a-half. Their property was seized and the funds in their bank accounts transferred to the state account.

Leyla Yunus remains in prison.

The Yunuses' appeal hearings are set to continue. They are also to be tried on a separate charge of treason.

The two activists are among Azerbaijan's relatively large collection of political prisoners, according to Amnesty International. Others include investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and a number of other human rights activists and journalists tried on what many international human rights groups call bogus charges.

Many of these prisoners had criticized the government of Azerbaijan and the President Ilham Aliyev.

Prior to their August 2014 arrest, the couple was a strong critic of Azerbaijan's human rights record, and Leyla documented the treatment of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. She was supported by her husband Arif, a historian and political activist.

According to Human Rights Watch, “The prosecution of the Yunuses is part of the government’s vicious and sweeping crackdown on perceived critics and independent groups.”

According to Transparency International, both suffer from serious heath problems which have gotten worse since their detention. Arif Yunus has suffered two strokes and Leyla has been diagnosed with diabetes and hepatitis C. Transparency International claims that neither has received adequate medical attention, and that Leyla Yunus was beaten by authorities while in detention in September 2014.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, former head of the RFE/RL Baku bureau and investigator for OCCRP, uncovered several cases of controversial big-money business deals linked to the ruling family in Azerbaijan.

After she published her findings, she was subjected to a campaign of harrassment which culminated in her arrest on Dec. 5, 2014.

On Sept. 1 this year, she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of power and running an illegal business.

The names of Ismayilova and Leyla Yunus are, among others, included in a September United States resolution urging governments to release their female political prisoners.

On Sept. 10, the European Parliament also passed a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Azerbaijan's political prisoners, naming both Ismayilova and the Yunuses.

The resolution also called for European Union (EU) authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into corruption allegations in Azerbaijan, including those contained in Ismayilova's stories.

Since the award-winning journalist has been in prison, her international colleagues have continued her work by publishing stories related to corruption in Azerbaijanas part of the Khadija Project.

When criticized for its record on political prisoners, the Azerbaijani government has maintained that they were sentenced justly on legitimate charges.