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"No Surprise" at Jail Terms for Leading Rights Defenders in Azerbaijan

With a vengeful government state behind them, prosecutors were always going to get rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus put behind bars.
By Nurgul Novruz
  • Leyla Yunus while her home was being searched in May 2014. (Photo: Afgan Mukhtarli)
    Leyla Yunus while her home was being searched in May 2014. (Photo: Afgan Mukhtarli)

“There is injustice everywhere,” said Alayif Hasanov, a human rights activist in Azerbaijan. “So why be surprised when they hand down long sentences to elderly human rights defenders with massive health problems, and don’t even prove them guilty?

Hasanov’s was one of many voices in Azerbaijan and abroad raised in outrage at the long jail terms handed down to rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus this week. Many felt the guilty verdicts were a foregone conclusion since Azerbaijani courts were there just to do the government’s bidding.

The couple were arrested a year ago. On August 13, a court in the capital Baku sentenced 59-year-old Leyla Yunus, to eight-and-a-half years in prison for extortion, tax evasion, illegal business activity, fraud and forgery. Arif Yunus, 60, was given seven years for extortion. The court ordered their home and other assets to be seized.

Leyla Yunus is director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, and her husband is a historian and an expert on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.

Both deny all the prosecution allegations.

Leyla Yunus addressed her closing remarks to prosecutors and other court officials.

“You fear our words. You are afraid people will find out what is going on in this country,” she said. “A fascist regime, a gang of robbers reigns in this country. That is why you are pronouncing this death sentence on us.”

Her husband said that that as a historian, he was aware that everything in life was transient.

“By arresting us, the authorities have written us into history. You judges and prosecutors will find yourselves there, too. Remember that,” he said, before passing out. He is in poor health and was visibly unwell throughout the hearing.

Earlier, Arif Yunus spoke about his wife, saying he would have married her anyway if he had known what they would have to go through together.

“I’m proud she is beside me now, in the hardest period of my life. What we are guilty of is wanting to change this country for the better. They have always persecuted us for that,” he told the court.

Lawyer Ramiz Mammadov is among those who sees massive holes in the prosecution case. “There’s no evidence, no victim and no damaged party. In other words, there’s not only no crime, but not crime victim,” he said.

Mammadov said prosecutors had based part of their case on money the Yunus held in bank accounts or transferred from them. “There’s no offence, no crime there,” he said.

“As for the origin of the money, the 170,000 manats is compensation which the government paid for demolishing Leyla Yunus’s private house. There are Supreme Court and Appeals Court rulings that confirm this,” he added.

TALKING TO ARMENIANS GROUNDS FOR TREASON CHARGE

The hefty prison terms that Arif and Leyla Yunus received could get even longer, as treason charges against them have yet to be heard. Prosecutors allege they collaborated with the secret service of Armenia, a country with which Azerbaijan is still technically at war two decades after the Karabakh conflict.

The treason charge seems to be based on various cross-border projects in which Azerbaijani and Armenian NGOs have tried to build connections between their respective societies. In the past, the authorities in Azerbaijan have tolerated such activities, described as “track two diplomacy”, which are designed to foster greater understanding and more conciliatory attitudes in the two societies.

Prosecutors said last year that the couple’s alleged links to Armenian intelligence emerged during an investigation into similar espionage charges levelled against journalist Rauf Mirqadirov. In April 2014, Mirqadirov was summarily detained by the authorities in Turkey, where he had been resident since 2010. He was sent to Azerbaijan, where he was accused of passing secret information to Armenia. His lawyer said he regarded the charges as absurd.

GOVERNMENT SAYS COURTS ARE INDEPENDENT – AND RIGHT TOO

After the verdict, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry put out a statement supporting the verdict and insisting that justice had been done, that the courts were totally independent, and that rule of law prevailed in the country.

"We condemn attempts to deliberately politicise and misinterpret the essence of the court’s verdict,” ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev said.

He was referring to the condemnation the verdict received from governments, international institutions and human rights groups.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the charges against the Yunuses “appear to be solely connected with their human rights work and participation in constructive people-to-people programmes aiming to ease tensions and build confidence in the region”.

“We are further troubled by reports of irregularities during the judicial process. We are particularly concerned about their health, and we urge the authorities to release them immediately on compassionate grounds,” he said.

The secretary general of the Council of Europe (CoE), of which Azerbaijan is a member, expressed similar concerns about the trial process. Thorbjørn Jagland also said the case might have to go before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Anne Brasseur, who chairs the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly, said she was “shocked and outraged” by the sentences.

“The Council of Europe has repeatedly urged the authorities to stop the unprecedented crackdown on civil society – including reprisals and judicial harassment of human rights defenders and independent media – and address human rights problems in the country,” she said. “Despite these appeals, the situation has not improved. It has worsened. The people targeted, the type of charges, the length of sentences, obvious shortcomings in trials, all put in question the authorities’ willingness to respect the fundamental values of the Council of Europe. Today’s decision is further proof of serious and systemic human rights problems in Azerbaijan,” continued the President. 

In Azerbaijan, there was a sense that the government would do what it wanted regardless of due process or reputational damage.

“The Yunuses have got their sentences; the instructions have been carried out,” said Ali Karimli, head of the opposition Popular Front Party. “Given that they are seriously ill, one can assume the couple have been given a death sentence.

“The authorities are so angry with this courageous human rights defender and her husband that they held a semi-closed trial and rushed out a slapdash verdict. They didn’t even bother trying to cover up the fact that the case was at their behest,” Karimli said. “They are clearly no longer concerned about the country’s international reputation.”

Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.