Two activists with the NIDA youth organization who have been labelled as political prisoners have been released from custody in Azerbaijan under a presidential pardon.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev pardoned 87 people, including several that international rights groups have labeled political prisoners, under a decree issued on December 29.
NIDA activists Uzeyir Mammadov and Zaur Gurbanli walked out of prison on December 30. The men were arrested in early 2013 after taking part in an antigovernment rally and were convicted of illegal weapons possession and organizing mass disorder. Gurbanli was serving an eight-year term, while Mammadov was serving seven years.
Aliyev's pardon also included jailed journalists Avaz Zeynalov and Serdar Alibeyli, as well as 18 people arrested during January 2013 unrest in the town of Ismayilli and eight people arrested while protesting a ban against Islamic head scarves in 2012.
According to international human rights organizations, there are still more than 90 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Local and international activists and organizations have criticized Baku in recent months for cracking down on nongovernmental organizations and independent media.
The offices of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq, were raided on December 26 by investigators from the state prosecutor's office who confiscated documents, files, and equipment before sealing off the premises.
Twelve bureau employees who were detained on December 27 and December 28 for questioning were released only after signing a document vowing not to disclose details about the investigation.
We are sorry, but this feature is currently not available
At least eight more current and former employees were summoned to prosecutors on December 29.
The OSCE on December 29 denounced Azerbaijan’s targeting of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau as "another severe blow to free media and free expression" in the former Soviet republic.
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on media freedom, said in a statement that Baku "must allow" work to resume by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service "and safeguard the existence of critical voices in the country."
Authorities in Azerbaijan have not released any information about the investigation of RFE/RL or about the possible charges being considered.
The Russian news agency Interfax on December 30 quoted an unidentified source "close to the inquiry" as as saying "a number of serious financial irregularities have already been uncovered." The source added that officials are looking into possible money laundering and theft.
The Interfax report describes a contract that Azadliq had with the newspaper "Think Differently" to pay for the publication of articles at advertising rates.
Shahvalad Chobanoglu, editor of "Think Differently" issued a statement on December 30 saying there was nothing illegal about the arrangement.
"The paper functioned legally. It was registered and taxes were paid. It was distributed for free. Now the Azerbaijan government is trying to portray this legal activity as a crime…. But in reality we are being punished for just 'thinking differently,'" he said.