Human Rights Watch (HRW) is accusing Azerbaijani authorities of "abusing" restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus to arrest government critics.
In less than a month, at least six opposition activists and a pro-opposition journalist were sentenced to detention of up to 30 days on "spurious charges" that included breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders, the New York-based watchdog said in a statement on April 16.
Most of them had criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or authorities' failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic, it said.
The arrests "fall squarely within a long-standing pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan," said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW.
He urged the authorities to "stop using a public-health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech."
Azerbaijan has recorded 1,283 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 15 deaths.
The government has put in place a series of social-distancing measures to combat the outbreak, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.
Last month, parliament passed legal amendments providing for fines of up to 200 manats ($120) or detention of up to 30 days for violating the lockdown regime.
In March, 154 people were jailed and thousands were fined for violating the restrictions, according to the Interior Ministry.
HRW said that arresting people for violating COVID-19 emergency measures may actually increase disease transmission by placing them in crowded detention facilities.
Critics of President Ilham Aliyev say authorities of the energy-rich South Caucasus state frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates without grounds.