BAKU -- A prominent human rights activist in Azerbaijan has been sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.
The Baku Court for Grave Crimes found Rasul Cafarov guilty of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office on April 16.
After his sentence was pronounced, Cafarov said the verdict was politically motivated.
Cafarov’s lawyer, Fariz Namazly, said after the ruling: “We will appeal the illegal and politically motivated verdict.
Cafarov was arrested in August after he announced plans for a campaign to draw attention to human rights abuses by authorities in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games, which the oil-producing Caspian Sea nation is hosting in June.
The 30-year-old Cafarov previously helped organize several rights campaigns -- including one called Sing For Democracy, which used Baku’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest to draw international attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record.
The chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, Isabel Santos has condemned Cafarov's sentencing and called on the international community to recognize him as a prisoner of conscience.
Amnesty International has recognized Cafarov as a prisoner of conscience.
Earlier in April, the U.S.-based nongovernmental group Human Right Watch said President Ilham Aliyev's government has used a range of bogus criminal charges during the previous year to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers.
Meanwhile, a New York-based group that works to defend freedom of expression has announced that a jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL, Khadija Ismayilova, will be honored on May 5 with a prestigious media freedom award.
The PEN American Center, part of a worldwide association of writers that defends those who are harassed, imprisoned, and killed for their views, said Ismayilova has been chosen to receive the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
In an April 15 statement, PEN said: "Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning reporter whose hard-hitting investigations have revealed corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan, including the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev."
RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic welcomed the award, calling it "a powerful acknowledgement of the value of Khadija's work and the wrongfulness of her imprisonment," and a "significant addition to efforts to gain her release."
Ismayilova was arrested on December 5 on charges of inciting a man to attempt suicide.
PEN said the charges were "trumped-up" and followed "years of escalating harassment by government and pro-government forces."
The plaintiff in the initial case against Ismayilova, Tural Mustafayev, told RFE/RL on April 7 that he had formally asked the Prosecutor-General’s Office to withdraw his complaint against her.
Mustafayev said he was under emotional stress when he lodged his accusation last year and now wants to “make peace” with Ismayilova.
But new charges were filed against Ismayilova in February alleging tax evasion, illegal business activities, and abuse of power.
Ismayilova denies wrongdoing and says all the charges against her are politically motivated.
Her jailing has been widely condemned by international rights groups as part of a campaign by Aliyev's government to intimidate and silence independent activists and journalists.
On December 4, a day before Ismayilova’s arrest, Aliyev's chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, publicly accused her of treason.
Later in December, the RFE/RL bureau in Baku was ransacked and ordered closed by investigators, while dozens of RFE/RL reporters were summoned by police for questioning related to their employment.
In March, when a Baku court held an unannounced snap hearing that prolonged Ismayilova's pretrial detention until May 24, the prosecutors linked the additional charges brought against her to allegations that RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service had been operating in the country as an illegal entity since 2008.
Pejic said then, "The case against RFE/RL, and by extension the case against Khadija, has no basis in reality -- the Azeris are making these things up as they go. We have memoranda from state agencies recognizing our broadcasting rights, tax documents, and years of approved Azeri state audits -- everything required. All of these charges should be dropped and Khadija should be released immediately."
The United States said last month that releasing jailed Azerbaijanis including Ismayilova, rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, human rights lawyer Intiqam Aliyev and others would demonstrate adherence to Azerbaijan's "commitments to uphold the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens."
With additional reporting by AFP and The New York Times