BAKU — Jailed Azerbaijani human rights advocates Leyla and Arif Yunus will go on trial on July 27, a judge said at a preliminary hearing nearly a year after their arrest on what the ailing couple and their supporters say are politically motivated charges.
Leyla Yunus, 59, and her husband Arif, 60, are among several activists, journalists, and government critics behind bars in the Caspian Sea state, where rights groups say President Ilham Aliyev has assiduously pursued a campaign to silence dissent.
Video footage showed the Yunuses being led from a police van into the Baku City Court for Grave Crimes. It was the first time they have seen each other since they were arrested separately, Leyla in July 2014 and Arif in August of the same year.
Leyla and Arif Yunus have been charged with treason, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and illegal business activities. The Prosecutor General’s Office has said that the couple was involved in passing classified information to agents of Armenia — Azerbaijan’s neighbor and foe.
They have been held in separate cells, and in a letter to her husband from pretrial detention in March, Leyla Yunus wrote that it was “frightening that we will not be together.”
Leyla Yunus looked pale at the July 15 hearing and had trouble answering questions from the judge, who rejected every motion filed by the defense. Lawyers had sought the dismissal of the case and asked the judge to let the defendants sit with their attorneys rather than in a glass-walled courtroom cage.
When the judge rejected the motions, Leyla Yunus accused the court of acting under orders and of violating her right to speak.
During a break — before she and her husband were ordered out to keep them from the media — she told journalists that her husband has a tumor in his head that could be cancer, but that he is being denied adequate treatment and doctors have been barred from visiting him in a National Security Ministry jail.
She said she is also suffering from several diseases. In June, the couple’s daughter Dinara told reporters her mother has diabetes and Hepatitis C, and that the health of both her parents had gotten “worse and worse” since their arrests.
Little Dissent Tolerated
Dinara Yunus said that her father was in solitary confinement and that her mother had been attacked by officers and inmates and humiliated by doctors at the facility.
The Yunuses deny guilt and say the charges are politically motivated. The trial set to start on July 27 is to address only the economic crimes charges, with the treason charges expected to be tried separately.
Representatives of foreign diplomatic missions, human rights activists, and journalists gathered outside the courthouse for the hearing, which had initially been scheduled for July 13.
Leyla Yunus, the founding director of the non-registered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku, is a vocal critic of Azerbaijan’s human rights record under Aliyev, who succeeded his long-ruling father Heidar Aliyev shortly before the older man’s death in 2003 and has tolerated little dissent.
She was actively involved for years in people-to-people diplomacy with Armenian rights activists, and has won several international prizes and honors for her human rights activities.
Arif Yunus is a well-known historian and researcher of conflicts across the Caucasus, focusing mainly on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian-populated region which Armenian-backed separatists seized from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.
The conflict has not been resolved, and tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia remains high.
The United States and European Union, as well as international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights, have condemned the incarceration of Leyla and Arif Yunus and demanded their immediate release.
Such groups and governments have also called for the release of others considered by rights activists to be political prisoners, including investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, human rights lawyer Intiqam Aliyev, and youth activist Rasul Cafarov.
The hearing came weeks after Azerbaijan hosted the June 12-28 European Games, spending lavishly on a competition clouded by criticism of the country’s rights record.
In June, Dinara Yunus said that her mother was arrested two days after she wrote an open letter in which she said authoritarian countries should not be entitled to host major sports events.