November 12, 2015 / 3:07 PM / in 2 years

Azerbaijan frees rights campaigner's husband from prison

BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan on Thursday released Arif Yunus, the husband of human rights activist Leyla Yunus, from prison on health grounds, and his lawyers said they would press now to secure her release as well.

Arif, 60, was sentenced to seven years and Leyla Yunus, head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, to 8 1/2 years in jail in August. They were convicted of economic crimes in a case that human rights groups say was part of a campaign to muzzle dissent.

Critics of Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, accuse him and his government of cracking down on dissent in the oil-rich former Soviet republic to block the rise of any political opposition. He denies this.

Despite the charges by rights organisations, the West treads a fine diplomatic line in dealings with Baku, courting it as an alternative to Russia as a source of oil and gas for Europe.

The United States called Arif's release "a positive step" and said it hoped the Azerbaijani government would give similar consideration to other prisoners facing health issues, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

Amnesty International regards the Yunuses as prisoners of conscience and say their case is one of several in which rights activists and journalists have been jailed this year.

Human rights groups have highlighted health problems the Yunuses have been suffering from and said the court proceedings violated their right to a fair trial.

Though a court released Arif on Thursday, it barred him from leaving the capital.

"The basis for Arif's release was a letter from the Justice Ministry's medical department, which confirmed deterioration of his health," his lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, told Reuters, adding that lawyers would continue to request Leyla's release.

Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Larry King

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