October 17, 2014 / 7:27 PM / 5 years ago

Azerbaijan frees four opposition activists in amnesty

BAKU (Reuters) - Four jailed opposition activists in Azerbaijan have been pardoned and released as part of a wider amnesty announced by President Ilham Aliyev, state media said on Friday.

All four were arrested in March 2013 after taking part in protests in the capital Baku over the death of an army conscript at a barracks, the latest in a string of unexplained non-combat deaths in the military.

Three, all members of a youth movement called NIDA, were convicted of hooliganism, possessing drugs and explosives, and intent to cause public disorder. The fourth, Hasan Huseinly, was head of a non-governmental organisation, “Intellectual Citizen”.

Rights groups accuse Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, of clamping down on dissent and rigging elections, but say he has been cushioned from Western criticism because of Azerbaijan’s role as an oil supplier to Europe and transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The government denies the accusations.

The opposition activists were among a group of 80 pardoned prisoners, including citizens of Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, but there were no details of the crimes these people had been sentenced for.

Activists say many other government critics remain behind bars.

“Unfortunately, only four people from our list of political prisoners were pardoned today,” Novella Jafarogly, a human rights activist, told Reuters.

“We will continue our work and hope that there won’t be any political prisoners by the end of January, when the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly starts its winter session.”

The Council is Europe’s main human rights and democracy forum. Last May its parliamentary arm delivered an embarrassing rebuke to Azerbaijan by accusing it of intimidating and repressing its critics, a week after the former Soviet republic took over the chairmanship of the Council’s ministerial committee.

Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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