ON HER 37TH WEDDING anniversary, Leyla Yunus was yanked from one reality and thrown into another. The prominent human rights activist in Azerbaijan, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was arrested July 30, 2014, and imprisoned. She was charged with treason, large-scale fraud, forgery, tax evasion and illegal business activity. Seven weeks later, she was severely beaten in prison and lost normal sight in her left eye. On Dec. 11, she was dragged by her feet into solitary confinement without explanation.
Ms. Yunus is 59 and suffers from diabetes. Her husband, Arif, a historian and scholar, was arrested Aug. 5, 2014, and faced similar charges. He celebrated his 60th birthday in prison and suffers from chronic hypertension. They have seen each other only once since the ordeal began, at their recent trial on the fraud charges in Baku, where Mr. Yunus fell unconscious. The trial ended in convictions and sentences of eight and a half years in prison for Ms. Yunus and seven years for Mr. Yunus. They still face further prosecution on the treason charges.
Given their fragile health, the verdicts are a death sentence. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, who in the last year and a half has turned with a vengeance against journalists, lawyers and human rights activists, has jailed about 100 people on trumped-up charges. One by one, he is now throwing away the keys, hoping to silence them forever.
Until their incarceration, Mr. and Ms. Yunus were members of that courageous band of scholars and activists who, by personal example, attempted to show that the brutality and closed-mindedness of the Soviet era were over. Leyla Yunus pressed hard to bridge the gap between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Arif Yunus became one of the most persistent and careful chroniclers of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian enclave over which Azerbaijan and Armenia fought in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For all their honesty, the Yunus couple are maligned as fraudsters and foreign agents of Armenia and now rot in jail at the whim of a ruthless autocrat.
Unfortunately, Mr. Aliyev entertains no criticism. His foreign ministry spokesman announced after the verdicts that “independence of courts and the rule of law are fully ensured” in Azerbaijan. Such nonsense is uttered without even a hint of embarrassment.
Ms. Yunus wrote the bitter truth in a recent letter from prison to Meydan TV, saying the charges against them were falsified and ordered “from the top.” She added, “They’re planning to wipe us out in agony. Why is that? So that our agony and our deaths become a lesson for all. If they do not shy away from destroying a well-known family, then others are easy to destroy too. Fear must live in the hearts of citizens. Fear and hopelessness.”
All those who respect the torch of freedom carried by Leyla and Arif Yunus must work to ensure that Mr. Aliyev is proven wrong.