BAKU -- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has pardoned more than 100 inmates ahead of Norouz, the New Year holiday, including three who were seen by government opponents and rights activists as political prisoners.
Rights groups welcomed the releases but said many Azerbaijanis remain behind bars on false charges, and urged Western governments to step up pressure on the former Soviet republic to set them free.
Human Rights Watch said the pardons "signal no fundamental change in the government’s campaign to lock up and silence independent critical voices."
Amnesty International called the decree a "little gesture to appease critics" in the run-up to the 2015 European Games, which Azerbaijan will host in June.
Inmates released under a clemency decree signed by Aliyev on March 18 included Orxan Eyyubzade, a prominent blogger, Basir Suleymanli, a leader of an election-monitoring NGO, and activist Anar Qasimli.
Eyyubzade was arrested in May for taking part in an unsanctioned rally in Baku and was serving a two-year sentence for resisting police.
Suleymanli, who was deputy director of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center in Baku, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of tax evasion and related offenses -- crimes he said he did not commit.
Qasimli was jailed several years ago for protesting against a hijab ban at schools in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country whose government sees expressions of faith as a potential challenge to secular rule.
Aliyev, who succeeded his long-ruling father as president of the oil-producing Caspian Sea state in 2003, has shrugged off mounting pressure from rights groups and Western governments to halt what critics say is a systematic clampdown on dissent.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that many inmates should never have been jailed and that dozens of activists, journalists, and others who have challenged the government remain behind bars.
Aliyev's decree "is incredibly happy news for all of those pardoned and their families, but there is little else to celebrate," New York-based HRW said in a statement on March 18.
The pardons "signal no fundamental change in the government’s campaign to lock up and silence independent critical voices," it said.
Suleymanli and Ayyubzade "never should have been imprisoned in the first place," HRW added.
It said that two days before the decree was issued, an activist with the opposition party Musavat, Sirac Karimli, was sentenced to six years on "trumped-up" drug-possession charges.
Anar Mammadli, the chief of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, received the same sentence as Suleymanli and remains in prison.
Among others behind bars, HRW cited Leyla Yunus, a prominent human rights activist whose husband is also jailed; Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor; human rights lawyer Intiqam Aliyev; and Rasul Cafarov, a youth activist who planned a Sport for Rights campaign ahead of the European Games.
HRW called on the European Union, the United States, the European Olympic committees, and other "key partners of Azerbaijan to "urgently press the authorities to immediately and unconditionally free everyone still behind bars on bogus charges."
In a statement on March 19, Amnesty International said that if Aliyev's government "is really serious about human rights, it will release all the prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally."
"Arrests of critics of the government on politically motivated charges must stop," it said.