Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev granted amnesty to 14 jailed activists and opposition politicians on Thursday (17 March), in a move welcomed by the European Union and human rights advocates.
The move was part of a broader amnesty that saw a total of 148 inmates pardoned, a decree released by Aliev’s office said.
Among those to be released from prison were prominent rights campaigners Rasul Jafarov and Anar Mammadli, as well as deputy head of the opposition Musavaty party, Tofik Yagublu.
They were all on a 28-member list of “political prisoners” compiled by leading Azerbaijani rights groups.
In a separate move on Thursday, an Azerbaijani court handed a prominent opposition journalist, Rauf Mirkadyrov, a suspended sentence of five years, after throwing out the initial six-year jail term, his lawyer Fuad Agayev told AFP.
Mirkadyrov was imprisoned for spying for arch-enemy Armenia, in what his supporters say was a politically motivated case.
Western governments and activists have repeatedly criticised the leadership of the energy-rich nation of 9.4 million people for widespread human rights abuses.
The European Union and international rights groups welcomed Aliyev’s decision to free his critics, but said the government needed to do more to improve its record.
“Good news from Azerbaijan on human rights,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said on Twitter.
— Federica Mogherini (@FedericaMog) March 17, 2016
She described the development as “positive”, adding that she had recently held talks in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.
European Parliament Vice-President Alexander Graf Lambsdorff called the release of opposition activists “a sign that the Azeri government is interested in restoring relations with the EU by respecting such fundamental rights as freedom of speech and assembly”.
But other prisoners need to be released as well, he added.
President of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Pedro Agramunt, added: “I will continue to work with the Azeri authorities on the issue of detained persons, and I applaud this major initiative.”
Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus Director at Human Rights Watch, struck a similar note.
“It’s a very good day for Azerbaijan,” he told AFP.
“But there are others who still remain in jail and they all must be freed without delay.”
Azerbaijan’s top investigative journalist and regime critic, Khadija Ismayilova, rights activists Ilgar Mammadov and Intigam Aliyev, and a number of other prominent campaigners are still behind bars, Gogia added.
Dissent in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan is often met with a tough government response.
Rights groups say the government has stepped up pressure on critical journalists and political opponents since strongman Aliyev’s election for a third term in 2013.
Human Rights Watch has accused the authorities in Azerbaijan of using spurious charges of drugs or weapons possession, tax evasion, and even high treason, to jail political activists and dissenting journalists.
Aliyev, 54, strongly denies rights abuses.
He took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and Communist-era leader who had ruled newly independent Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.
The Muslim-majority country wedged between Iran and Russia is considered key to Western efforts to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.
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.