By RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service
April 19, 2016
Two of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights defenders, who supporters say have been persecuted and jailed at home for their activist work, have arrived in the Netherlands after the authorities in Baku granted them permission to leave.
Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, were greeted by their daughter, Dinara Yunus, who lives in the Netherlands, upon landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on April 19, according to Dutch media reports.
Welcoming the two, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said Leyla and Arif Yunus, who are seeking asylum in the Netherlands, “had put their own safety and happiness at stake in the struggle for democracy and human rights,” according to local reports.
No further details were immediately available.
Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus were sentenced to 8 1/2 and 7 years in prison, respectively, in August 2015 for “fraud” and other purported crimes related to their NGO work.
Supporters said the charged were trumped up. Amnesty International recognized the couple as prisoners of conscience.
International rights groups, the United States, and the European Union routinely criticize Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights and freedom of speech under President Ilham Aliyev, who critics say has cracked down on independent media since succeeding his long-ruling father in 2003.
The decision by authorities in Azerbaijan to let them travel comes as something of a surprise.
Last month, an appeals court in Baku ruled the two could not travel to Europe because of their suspended prison terms.
Toward the end of 2015, the Yunuses were released from jail and their sentences were suspended due to their poor health.
Leyla Yunus, 59, suffers from a number of ailments including diabetes and hepatitis C.
She had complained of being beaten several times by prison guards since being detained in July 2014.
She appeared frail as she left the courtroom on December 9, walking with difficulty and leaning on her husband.
Arif Yunus was released in November, also on health grounds.
The prosecution of Leyla and Arif Yunus has been condemned by the international community as part of a deepening crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan.
Numerous other activists, journalists, and government critics — including investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova — remain imprisoned in Azerbaijan on charges that Western officials and international rights groups have called politically motivated.
Baku has repeatedly rejected the accusations, insisting that the cases in question are strictly criminal in nature.
The Yunuses, who had worked for the unregistered Peace and Democracy Institute in Baku, were still facing treason charges in a separate case stemming from allegations of spying for Baku’s archrival, Armenia.