Prominent rights defenders convicted in Azerbaijan

AP News
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Posted: Aug 13, 2015 12:30 PM

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A court in Azerbaijan on Thursday convicted a prominent rights defender and her husband on fraud charges, which international rights groups have denounced as a sham.

The court in Baku sentenced Leyla Yunus to 8 ½ years in prison on charges of fraud, tax evasion and illegal business activities. Her husband Arif Yunus was given a 7-year sentence on fraud charges, and the court also confiscated the couple's assets.

Both pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The couple, who have been in custody since their arrest a year ago, still face a future trial on charges of espionage for neighboring Armenia.

Amnesty International has described them as prisoners of conscience and demanded their immediate release. It believes the charges against the couple were fabricated in retaliation to their legitimate human rights work and criticism of the government.

"The judicial system has once again revealed itself to be no more than a cynical tool by which President Ilham Aliyev crushes any dissent or criticism of his regime," Levan Asatiani, campaigner at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "His government's human rights record is simply shocking."

The government of oil-rich Azerbaijan has long faced international criticism of its human rights record.

Yunus, the head of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, had documented the treatment of political prisoners in Azerbaijan before her arrest in July 2014, days after she had called for a boycott of the European Games. Azerbaijan's rights record came under close scrutiny when it hosted the sports event in June.

Both Yunus and her husband, a historian and political activist, suffer from serious health problems and their health has worsened in custody. Amnesty said they have been denied proper medical treatment.