Mehriban Aliyeva “facilitated” the Yunuses’ departure

Azerbaijani First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva reportedly brokered a dialogue which led to allowing Leyla and Arif Yunus leave Azerbaijan for medical treatment, Turan reported on April 25 citing an unnamed source.

Aliyeva’s representatives communicated to the Yunus couple their willingness to arrange their trip abroad for medical care, according to Turan. The human rights activists also reportedly received a message from Aliyeva, which expressed a wish for their return to Azerbaijan after the treatment and creating conditions that would be conducive to their public and academic work in the future.

Leyla and Arif Yunus left Azerbaijan for the Netherlands on April 19 to receive urgent medical care. The European Union and the US State Department welcomed the decision of Azerbaijani authorities to allow the couple to receive medical help abroad. In the Netherlands, the couple reunited with their daughter Dinara.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said Leyla and Arif Yunus „had put their own safety and happiness at stake in the struggle for democracy and human rights.”

The decision by authorities to allow the couple to travel came as a surprise. Last month, an appeals court in Baku ruled the two could not travel to Europe because of their suspended prison terms.

Leyla Yunus, 59, is the head of the unregistered Institute for Peace and Democracy. Last August, she was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison on charges of large-scale fraud, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and falsifying official documents, widely as seen as politicized. The sentence was converted into a suspended term of 5 years last December on humanitarian grounds. Her husband Arif, an award-winning activist and historian, was sentenced to 7 years in August on similar charges. Leyla Yunus suffers from diabetes and hepatitis C.

Prior to their August 2014 arrest, the couple was a strong critic of Azerbaijan’s human rights record, and Leyla documented the treatment of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. They were described as political prisoners by human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.