Leyla Yunus

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AZERBAIJAN / Detained July 30, 2014 – December 9, 2015

UPDATE: On April 19, 2016, Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus were able to travel to the Netherlands, where they received political asylum. In May 2017, the Azerbaijani government ordered the couple to return to the country to stand trial. The couple now resides in exile in the Netherlands.

Leyla Yunus is a prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist and the founding director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a leading human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) in Azerbaijan. She is married to Arif Yunus, an Azerbaijani scholar who also serves as the head of the Department of Conflict and Migration at the Institute for Peace and Democracy. The couple is active in “citizen diplomacy,” participating in peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabkh conflict—a long standing territorial dispute between the two countries.

On July 30, 2014, Leyla and Arif were detained while on their way to Qatar from the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan. Both were accused of spying for the Armenian government. Leyla was sentenced to three months in pretrial detention.

Leyla’s arrest immediately triggered international backlash. On August 6, 2014, 60 NGOs issued a joint letter to the Azerbaijani government to raise concerns about Leyla’s health in detention, as she suffers from diabetes and adheres to a strict diet to control her illness. Leyla reported being denied medical treatment in pretrial detention; she was also severely beaten in pretrial detention, to the point of losing normal sight in her left eye. On December 11, 2014, Leyla was dragged by her feet into solitary confinement without explanation. She lost a total of 16 kilograms (35 pounds) in pretrial detention alone.

On August 13, 2015, Leyla was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. In August and September 2015, the US and the European Parliament each issued statements and resolutions calling for the Azerbaijani government to release Arif and Leyla. However, on December 9, 2015, authorities suspended Leyla’s sentence due to health issues. Although Leyla and Arif were both released from prison, they were forced to sign documents agreeing not to leave Baku, Azerbaijan.

Following their release from prison, international pressure continued to mount on the Azerbaijani government as Arif and Leyla were banned from traveling outside the country to receive medical care. In March 2016, an appellate court upheld their travel bans. However, on April 19, 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities lifted the travel ban and allowed the couple to travel to the Netherlands, where they reunited with their daughter and received the medical treatment they needed.

The couple applied for and received asylum in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the couple continues to be harassed by the Azerbaijani government. In May 2017, the Azerbaijani government ordered them to return to the country, so as to appear before court concerning their appeal. Supporters feared that the government would issue international arrest warrants to force the couple to return to Azerbaijan, leading 25 NGOs to issue a joint letter to Interpol warning against the warrants.