Leyla and Arif Yunus released

In their forthcoming book, Arif Yunus describes how he and Leyla were placed under house arrest in December 2015, following their trial. He had been released conditionally on 12 November 2015; she continued to be held in the Kyurdakhani detention centre.

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On 7 December 2015, the latest hearing of our case took place at the Appeals Court. I went there hoping not only to see Leyla but to bring her home.

European diplomats were in almost daily contact with the presidential administration and felt sure that the judge would announce our release. They had been given assurances of the kind the day before by the presidential administration and this filled me with hope.

Leyla was incarcerated in the aquarium and looked exhausted and pale. I was not allowed to join her but had to sit with our lawyers. They declared that the charges brought against us by the lower court had no substance and called for our acquittal and release there and then, in the courtroom. Neither of us had the strength or the will to speak at the hearing and merely expressed our agreement with the position and arguments adopted by our lawyers.

Another postponement

The prosecutor asked for the verdict to remain in force. During his speech Leyla covered her ears with her hands and began to shake her head, letting all know that she was indignant about what he was saying. We were expecting Judge Vugar Mamedov to issue his ruling, but he called, unexpectedly, for the hearing to be resumed on 10 December. Evidently, he had not yet received detailed instructions from the presidential administration.

I was dispirited by this outcome and Leyla’s health continued to worsen. Suddenly our lawyers received a phone call that the hearing scheduled for 10 December had been moved a day forward. On 9 December Leyla was again held in the aquarium, while I sat in the courtroom, next to our lawyers. The judge entered and opened the proceedings which lasted no more than 30 minutes. In a short closing speech, the State prosecutor declared that the appeal was groundless and asked the court to leave the verdict unchanged.

Our lawyers briefly repeated their previous arguments and Leyla and I declared that we were innocent and demanded a full acquittal. Leyla declared, “You have annihilated me,” but Judge Mamedov interrupted her and demanded that she “keep to the subject”. Then a recess was called before verdict was pronounced. Ten minutes later it was announced that our appeal was turned down and that the guilty verdict of the previous trial was upheld. However, the sentence and form of punishment had changed.

We now faced conditional sentences (8 ½ years for Leyla, 7 years for me) with a probationary period of five years, taking into account the health of the accused. The charge of falsifying documents under Article 320.1 against Leyla was also dismissed. Leyla was freed there and then. She was able to leave the aquarium and we embraced. Meanwhile, the officials began to make all the journalists, civil society activists and diplomats who had attended the trial leave the room. We were not allowed to leave the building through the main entrance but by another door. Leyla did not want to go straight home, but first visit her loved ones at the graveyard. It was always important for her to visit their graves.

When we reached home a large group of journalists met us in the courtyard. Answering their questions, Leyla slowly mounted the stairs to our apartment, with my assistance. She was in a very bad way and wanted to get home as soon as she could, there to lie on her bed and forget everything that had happened to her over the preceding 17 months. We opened the door and entered our flat which we had left on 30 July 2014 …

Once again we were home, and together.

In 2016, Arif and Leyla Yunus left Azerbaijan and joined their daughter Dinara, who had been  in the Netherlands since 2009.