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Ahsan Nuruzade

BAKU -- A court in Baku has sentenced a leader of an independent religious group to seven years in prison on drug-dealing charges.

The Baku City Court for Grave Crimes on March 6 found Ahsan Nuruzade of the Muslim Unity Movement guilty of illegal possession of drugs with the intention of selling, and sentenced him the same day.

Nuruzade was arrested in October 2017 after police said they found almost 15 grams of heroin in his possession.

He rejected the charges, saying the heroin was planted in his pocket by police officers.

He also said that the case against him was orchestrated by the authorities in retaliation for his participation in antigovernment rallies and his support for dozens of people who were imprisoned in the high-profile Nardaran case.

The leader of the Muslim Unity Movement, Taleh Bagirzade, his deputy Abbas Huseynov, opposition Popular Front Party leader Fuad Qahramanli, and 15 other men were sentenced to prison terms from 10 to 20 years in January 2017 in what is known as the Nardaran case.

Rights activists in Azerbaijan say a total of 87 people have been arrested in the case, which they describe as a politically motivated crackdown on dissent. They were tried and sentenced in three groups between 2016 and 2017.

The men were arrested during November-December 2015 in a series of raids against alleged religious extremists in Nardaran, a village on the outskirts of Baku. Seven people, including two police, were killed during the raids.

Critics say President Ilham Aliyev's government uses trumped-up charges in a persistent campaign to silence opposition.

Oyub Titiyev attends a court hearing in Grozny on March 6.

A court in Chechnya has prolonged pretrial detention for Oyub Titiyev, the jailed director of the prominent Russian human rights group Memorial's office in Russia's North Caucasus region.

A district court in the Chechen capital, Grozny, ruled on March 6, that Titiyev must remain in custody until May 9, despite assurances from presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky that the activist will not flee Chechnya.

Yavlinsky was present at the hearing during which a request from another candidate in Russia's election in March, Ksenia Sobchak, to release Titiyev from pretrial detention was also read out.

Denis Krivosheyev, deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said the court decision "was as predictable as it was dismaying and outrageous."

"Oyub must be released immediately and unconditionally, and set free to continue with his human rights work," Krivosheyev added. "The authorities should be instead investigating those who are fabricating criminal charges to target and harass human rights defenders."

Titiyev, 60, was detained on January 9 by police who claimed to have found about 180 grams of marijuana in his car.

Titiyev said the drugs were planted and Memorial has rejected the allegations against him, contending they were fabricated in an effort to run the respected rights organization out of Chechnya.

After Titiyev's arrest, Memorial's office in Ingushetia and one of its cars in Daghestan were torched in what the group believes were attacks linked to its efforts to challenge Titiyev's arrest.

Western governments and international organizations have voiced concern about Titiyev's case and called for his release.

Last month, the European Parliament called for the "immediate release" of Titiyev, saying the case against him was "part of a worrying trend of arrests, attacks, intimidation, and discrediting of independent journalists and human rights defenders working in Chechnya."

However, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, called Titiyev a "drug addict" and branded all human rights defenders "people without kinship, ethnicity, and religion."

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

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