A court in Azerbaijan sentenced human right activist Leyla Yunus and her husband to long jail terms for fraud and tax evasion on Thursday, in a move critics say it is politically motivated.
The couple are known for campaigning human rights in Azerbaijan for years. Leyla Yunus was handed down eight-and-a-half years in prison, while her husband Arif Yunus was given seven years.
They have been arrested a year ago on suspicion of spying for Armenia and have been in prison since. The couple faces also charges of treason, which carries a life sentence.
The couple's lawyer Ramiz Mamedov told AFP they are innocent and suffering from serious health problems, including diabetes and a heart condition.
"The charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement were not proved at the trial," Mamedov said.
The couple's daughter Dinara reacted the court desicion on Twitter, saying "my parents are sentenced to death today," from the Netherlands where she lives.
Rights activists decried the harsh sentence and described it as another attempt to silence human rights workers and politically motivated.
US-based Human Rights Watch condemned the ruling as a "despicable political show trial."
"These sentences are outrageous and aim purely at sanctioning the legitimate work of the two Azeri human rights defenders," The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said in a statement.
Leyla Yunus is the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, which works closely with EU's human rights watchdog especially for the reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan has been accused of stepping up pressure on human rights activists and political dissidents. More than 30 activists, lawyers, journalists and political figures arrested in last three years, according to Human Rights Watch. Bank accounts of several NGO's were frozen after the government of Ilham Aliyev has adopted laws restricting foreign funding to non-govermantal organizations.
"The judicial system has once again revealed itself to be no more than a cynical tool by which President Ilham Aliyev crushes any dissent," Amnesty International's Azeri researcher Levan Asatiani told BBC.
Analysts believe the ongoing crack down against political opposition and right activist intensified following the popular uprisings such as Arab Spring and Ukraine crisis. Despite accusation of stiff crack down on any dissident voice, the Aliyev government is supported by the West as the country is seen as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, criticized "the politicization of the court's decision on the criminal case" after international condemnation, claiming that "the trial took place in an open and free conditions."
"Azerbaijan has fully ensured the independence of the courts and the rule of law. It is necessary to respect the court's decision. According to the law, every citizen has the right to appeal against the order", official representative Hikmet Hajiyev said in a statement.