* OSCE, Amnesty International criticise Aliyev government
* Amnesty suggests move timed to presidential vote
* Imprisonment of journalist also condemned
By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI, May 15 Human rights groups criticised
Azerbaijan on Wednesday for legislation that will make
defamation over the Internet a criminal offence punishable by
imprisonment ahead of a presidential election in the tightly
Amnesty International and the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) accused the oil-producing former
Soviet state of tightening curbs on free expression before
Aliyev is expected to win a new term despite opposition from
Azeris tired of his rule over the mostly Muslim nation of 9
million on the Caspian Sea.
Inspired in part by the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle
East and North Africa, some opponents have used social media to
organise street protests, many of which are swiftly dispersed.
Parliament on Tuesday passed amendments imposing fines of up
to 1,000 manats ($1,250) and prison terms of up to three years
for anyone convicted of online defamation. Existing law does not
cover defamation committed on the Internet.
The legislation is expected to be signed by President Ilham
Aliyev, who has been accused by rights groups of suppressing
dissent, curtailing freedoms and clamping down on media since he
succeeded his father in 2003.
"The new legislation constitutes a further attack of freedom
of expression in Azerbaijan," Amnesty International said in a
statement. "The Azeri authorities must not use the upcoming
presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices."
The OSCE - Europe's main human rights and security
organisation, of which Azerbaijan is a member - said it had
warned the government over the bill.
"Yesterday's amendments drive Azerbaijan even further away
from the OSCE's recommendations to decriminalise defamation,"
OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said.
She also condemned a ruling by an appeals court in the
capital, Baku, upholding a nine-year prison sentence against
Avaz Zeynally, a newspaper editor convicted of extortion.
Zeynally says the charge is a baseless government reprisal
for a story in the daily Khural criticising senior officials.
Sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan is an
energy supplier to Europe and a transit route for U.S. troops in
Afghanistan - a role that rights groups say has cushioned the
country from Western criticism of its democracy record.
Aliyev's government says Azerbaijan has full freedom of
speech and a thriving opposition press.
(Additional reporting by Lada Evgrashina in Baku; Editing by