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Helsinki Commission Condemns Trial and Harsh Sentencing of Leyla and Arif Yunus in Azerbaijan

WASHINGTON—After a Baku, Azerbaijan court today sentenced human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus to 8 ½ years and seven years, respectively, in prison, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:

“I condemn today’s harsh sentencing of Leyla and Arif Yunus, two human rights activists who drew attention to the government’s repression of political dissent. Both Leyla and Arif are very ill and have already endured almost a year in pre-trial detention.  Sentencing them to further time in jail is hardly better than a death sentence. The charges brought against the Yunuses for their peaceful efforts on behalf of many other political prisoners – including journalists and lawyers – are yet another indication that the Government of Azerbaijan is out to erase all forms of free expression and dissent.”

Leyla and Arif Yunus were charged with tax evasion and other economic crimes, and are also facing separate charges of treason for their work advocating reconciliation with Armenia. Both are in poor health and their detention and trials have been marred by consistent government harassment, including disbarring and dismissing their lawyers. At the sentencing today, Leyla Yunus expressed her clear understanding of the political motivation behind the charges against them: "This government is afraid of a word. This trial showed that all of you are afraid of words. This is why you chose to hold this trial behind closed doors, not letting any journalists come in and do their reporting. You have issued a death sentence for us. Because neither mine, nor Arif's health will let us stay in jail for a long time."


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Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith meets with former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (June 2015)