Sign up for weekly updates

Prominent human rights defender Leyla Yunus free after 17 months

Leyla Yunus returning to her house, 9 December 2015
Leyla Yunus returning to her house, 9 December 2015

Aziz Karimov:

This statement was originally published on on 9 December 2015.

By Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division

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, 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 and 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, 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.

Additional resources

Latest Tweet:

Burma: 20 civil society organisations urge the government to fully guarantee the internationally protected right to…

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.