On 9 December 2015, Leyla Yunus was released from detention and her 8.5-year prison sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion was converted into a 5-year suspended sentence, following a decision by the Baku City Court of Appeal on the basis of a request from her lawyers with reference to her deteriorating health condition. Similarly the prison term of her husband, Arif Yunus was changed into a 5-year suspended one. He was released under house arrest on 12 November 2015.

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Description of case

Leyla Yunus (59) and her husband Arif Yunus (60) were arrested on 30 July 2014. Spending one year in a pre-trial detention on 13 August 2015 the Baku Court for Grave Crimes sentenced Leyla and Arif Yunus to 8.5 and 7 years respectively. Charges brought against Leyla Yunus include state treason (article 274 of the criminal code of Azerbaijan), large-scale fraud (article 178.3.2), forgery (article 320), tax evasion (article 213), and illegal entrepreneurship (article 192). Arif Yunus is charged with state treason and fraud.

The persecution against Leyla and Arif Yunus started in late April 2014, when travel ban was imposed on them and their passports were confiscated. The period of pre-trial detention of Leyla and Arif Yunus was extended two times. The first hearing on the case took place on 15 July 2015, almost one year after the detention. Both Leyla and Arif are suffering from life-threatening health conditions. Leyla Yunus has diabetes and hepatitis C. During the court hearing in early August 2015 Arif Yunus suffered with severe hypertensive crisis.

International organisations have been calling for the immediate release of the couple and for all charges against them to be dropped. They describe the case as politically motivated and regard Leyal and Arif as political prisoners. The authorities in Azerbaijan have repeatedly ignored the life-threatening health conditions of Leyla and Arif. Requests by defence lawyers (and the international community) to replace pre-trial detention with house arrest, and to release the couple on humanitarian grounds were partially met on 12 November 2015. Following the UN Committee Against Torture review of Azerbaijan, and repeated requests from the lawyers, Baku Court of Appeals replaced Arif Yunus’ imprisonment with the house arrest. Charges against Arif Yunus remains unchanged and he is barred from living the country.


Leyla Yunus is a long time human rights defender. She is a Director of a human rights organisation - Institute for Peace and Democracy. Historian by training, she has been known to call for peace during Azerbaijan-Armenia hostilities, and lead people-to-people dialogue between the two states. During Eurovision Song Contest, the building of Institute for Peace and Democracy was illegally demolished after the publication Leyla Yunus’ interview in Washington post about illegal demolitions of the houses of citizens in Baku. For almost 30 years Leyla and Arif Yunus have been working on compiling a comprehensive list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Leyla Yunus is a Knight of French Legion of Honor, winner of International Theodor Hacker award, Laureate of Polish Sergio Vieira de Mello Award, and a finalist of 2014 Sakharov Prize.

Arif Yunus is a famous Azerbaijani historian and human rights activist. He is the chairperson of the Conflict and Migration department at the Institute of Peace and Democracy. Throughout his career Arif has published over 30 books and several articles on the history of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan-Armenian relations. In his work he has promoted dialogue between intellectuals from Azerbaijan and Armenia, and for a long time have been advocating for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. He has supported numerous victims of torture and spoken out repeatedly against politically motivated detentions.

Human Rights Situation in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s human rights record and democratic development has been in steady decline since the early 2000s. For almost a decade political opposition and journalists have been subject to harassment and intimidation, at times with fatal consequences. In 2013 a large-scale crack-down started on the civil society and in particular on those who were openly critical of failing human rights and democratisation record of the Azerbaijani authorities.
Detention of Leyla and Arif Yunus came amidst severe crackdown on dissent and freedoms in Azerbaijan. Both have been long-time critics of Azerbaijani government’s failing human rights record. The international organisations regard the arrest of Leyla and Arif Yunus as politically motivated case, in order to silence the government critics and sending a sign that space for independent and critical voices is practically non-existent in Azerbaijan.

Further reading:

The EU’s public diplomacy

European External Action Service (and member states)
The EU and its member states have yet to mount a firm, collective response to the crackdown in Azerbaijan, and articulate a clear, common stance insisting that the Azerbaijan government take steps to rectify its human rights record and immediately and unconditionally release anyone held on politically motivated charges, including Leyla and Arif Yunus.
From the moment Leyla and Arif Yunus were summoned for the interrogation in relation to the detention of Rauf Mirkadirov in April 2014, the spokespersons of EU High Representative and the European Commissioner for European Neighborhood policy, made several public statements (5th/6th May 2015, 2nd August) on the cases. However, during one-year pre-trial detention, the EU has refrained from a public calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the couple despite the existing evidence of politically motivated nature of the case and deteriorating health conditions of both.
A number of EU officials responded to the verdict delivered by the Baku Court for Grave Crimes on 13 August 2015, via twitter or stand-alone statements:
  • The High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini;
  • The Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Policy, Johannes Hahn;
  • The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz;
  • The Chair of the Human Rights Sub-Committee, of the European Parliament. Elena Valenciano.
The above statements/tweets included a call for the immediate release of Leyla and Arif Yunus, and for review and an independent investigation into the case. A few member states, including Foreign Minister of The Netherlands, and the Foreign Office of the UK also issued separate statements on the cases.

On 13 November, 2015 in response to the transfer of Arif Yunus from prison to house arrest, the spokesperson of the EU High Representative noted that this was a ‘welcome and positive humanitarian gesture’. However, the statement failed to reiterate the High Representative’s previous call that Arif and Leyla Yunus should be immediately and unconditionally released.
The EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis visited Azerbaijan on 23-27 February 2015. No public statement was issued during or after the visit. The EUSR’s tweeter feed featured a few moments of his visit. In August after the verdict was delivered to Leyla and Arif Yunus EUSR’s tweeter account called it politically motivated.

European Parliament

In the two consecutive Resolution on 17 September 2014 and on 10 September 2015, the European Parliament ‘Call[s] for the immediate and unconditional release from jail of all political prisoners, human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society activists, including […], Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus, […], and call[s] for all charges against them to be dropped and for the full restoration of their political and civil rights and public image.’ Leyla Yunus was a finalist for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2014.

Member of the European Parliament, and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok has been facilitating regular visit of a German Doctor to Leyla and Arif Yunus in prison. Doctor conducts medical examination and provides them with necessary medication.

A number of MEPs have been actively following and responding to developments related to the cases and the overall crackdown in Azerbaijan such as European Parliament Vice Presidents MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff and MEP Ulrike Lunacek, the Chair of the European Parliaments Subcommittees on human rights, MEP Elena Valenciano, MEP Marietje Schaake, MEP Kati Piti and many others.

In July 2015 Member of the European Parliament, Kati Piri visited Baku to attend the trial of Leyla and Arif Yunus. In her blog, published on 16 July 2015 she reported about the trial marred by injustice. And stressed that (we must) continue to call for the immediate release of Leyla ad Arif Yunus as well as other political prisoners.

Immediate Call for Release!

The second part of the trial will continue in the coming months and if found guilty, Leyla and Arif Yunus would face from 10 to 20 years imprisonment. The picture is somewhat mixed as to what the EU has done with public diplomacy to secure their release.

What more the EU could do?

We call the EU to develop a common position, committing all member states and EU institutions to a single, coherent policy approach vis-à-vis the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and collectively work to pursue the release of all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including Leyla and Arif Yunus.
EU High Representative Frederica Mogherini, European External Action Service, European Commission, EU Member States :
  • Send clear messages to Azerbaijan authorities that the crackdown is wholly unacceptable and that it cannot be business as usual for the EU-Azerbaijan relations until the government immediately and unconditionally releases Leyla and Arif Yunus and all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges;
  • Develop a strategy with the stated aim of secure the immediate and unconditional releases of Leyla and Arif Yunus and all others wrongfully imprisoned;
  • Ensure consistent follow-up to the public statement issued on 14 August 2015 by EU HR/VP Federica Mogherini.
European Parliament:  
  • Members of the European Parliament should continue to call on the Azerbaijan government to cease its crackdown on civil society and immediately and unconditionally release of Leyla and Arif Yunus and all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges;
  • Members of the European Parliament should also follow-up on the two European Parliament resolutions and actively press EU Member States, the EEAS and the European Commission to step up EU efforts to secure the immediate and unconditional release of Leyla and Arif Yunus and all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges;
  • Members of the European Parliament should also use all possible channels at their disposal such as press and blog articles, speeches, and parliamentary questions to highlight the cases of Leyla and Arif Yunus and others;
  • The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz to follow up on his statement from 15 August 2015 to secure release of Leyla and Arif Yunus;
  • The Chair of the DROI sub-committee Elena Valanciano to follow-up on her statement from 14 August 2015 to secure release of Leyla and Arif Yunus;

Contact details of relevant officials in Azerbaijan

Executive Administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan
Republic of Azerbaijan,
Baku city, AZ1066,
Istiglaliyyat street, 19,
"The President Palace"
E-mail office@pa.gov.az

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan
Minister, Elmar Mammadyarov
Shikhali Gurbanov str. 50, Baku AZ 1009 Azerbaijan
Phone: +994 12 596 90 00
E-mail: katiblik@mfa.gov.az

National Parliament of Azerbaijan
Speaker of the Parliament of Azerbaijan, Oqtay Sabir oğlu Əsədov
Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of Azerbaijan, Seyidov Səməd İsmayıl oğlu
Parlament prospekti, 1 AZ 1152, Bakı, Azərbaycan
Tel: (99412) 498-97-48  
E-mail: azmm@meclis.gov.az

On Twitter
Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration & Director of Foreign Relations Department, Administration of the President of Azerbaijan: @NovruzMammadov
  Official twitter channel of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliyev @presidentaz 

Contact details
International Partnership for Human Rights

Other resources: