Azerbaijan released a prominent human rights activist from prison on Monday (28 March), who had been jailed on charges which denounced as politically motivated, his lawyer said.
“Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court ruled to replace Intigam Aliyev’s initial seven-and-a-half-year sentence with a suspended sentence of five years,” lawyer Javad Javadov told AFP.
“My client has been imprisoned illegally and we will fight for his full acquittal,” Javadov added. “We will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.”
The activist’s release came hot on the heels of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s surprise decision to free 14 rights activists and opposition politicians in an amnesty earlier this month.
The 17 March amnesty was welcomed by the European Union and international rights groups who have long criticised the energy-rich nation’s leadership for widespread rights abuses.
Intigam Aliyev, a 53-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner who heads the group Legal Education Society, was charged in 2014 with tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of office.
His supporters criticised the charges as falsified and politically motivated.
In April 2015, the campaigner was sentenced to seven and a half years in a penal colony, leading Amnesty International to call him a “prisoner of conscience.”
The EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe had repeatedly urged the Azerbaijani government to free the lawyer.
Over the past two decades, Intigam Aliyev – who is not related to the president – has lodged some 200 cases with the European Court of Human Rights and won 40 of them.
Most claims concerned alleged fraud during parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010 in the tightly-controlled southern Caucasus nation.
President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party won the vote both times.
In 2014, the activist received the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
In 2013, Intigam Aliyev was awarded the annual Homo Homini prize from the Czech rights organisation People in Need which praised his “personal courage and exceptional commitment to defending persecuted individuals”.
Human rights groups say the government of the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic has stepped up pressure on opponents since President Aliyev’s election for a third term in 2013.
The Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Belgium, Fuad Isgandarov, has argued that on human rights, his country is often unfairly targeted, and that it would make better progress if it is not pressured from the outside.