Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has pardoned more than 400 people convicted of crimes in the country, including several members of the opposition considered to be political prisoners by international rights organizations.
The mass pardon, which Aliyev issued in a decree signed early on March 16, included former Health Minister Ali Insanov, journalist Fikret Faramazoglu, opposition Musavat Party member Alikram Xurshidov, and the deputy chairpersons of the opposition Popular Front Party, Gozel Bayramli and Fuad Qahramanli.
Insanov was a high-ranking member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and seen as a possible rival of Aliyev. He was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of planning a coup attempt and sentenced two years later on embezzlement and bribery charges.
Insanov has claimed his innocence, and human rights groups have said they considered him a political prisoner.
Also among the pardoned were Ilkin Rustamzadeh, Elgiz Gahraman, Giyas Ibrahimov, and Bayram Mammadov of the opposition NIDA youth movement.
Ibrahimov and Mammadov were sentenced on drug charges after they sprayed graffiti on a statute of Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan and the current leader’s father.
“Amnesty International believes that Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov are prisoners of conscience and that the drug charges against them were fabricated with the sole purpose of punishing them for their political activities,” the human rights group said in 2016.
Rights groups and Western governments have urged the Azerbaijani authorities to release political prisoners for years and have accused the government of fabricating criminal cases to stifle dissent and media freedom.
Under the pardon, 399 people will be released from prison, 11 will have their suspended sentences lifted, and 12 will have fines against them dismissed. Three people serving life sentences will have their terms reduced to 25 years.
Aliyev's pardon will also free 14 foreigners from prison, including three Georgians, two Russians, two Nigerians, and one each from Uzbekistan, Iran, Belarus, Turkey, Cameroon, and India.
It is common in Azerbaijan for the president to pardon prisoners ahead of the Norouz new year holiday, which is on March 21. But it is unusual for political prisoners to be included in the pardon.
On March 2, Azerbaijani anticorruption blogger Mehman Huseynov was freed after fully serving a two-year prison sentence in a case that sparked international outrage and critics said was politically motivated.
Huseynov was convicted of libel for saying he had been mistreated by police in January 2017.
The move came after large-scale demonstrations in Baku in support of Huseynov and the adoption of a European Parliament resolution calling for his immediate release.
Aliyev has ruled the oil-producing former Soviet republic of nearly 10 million people with an iron fist since shortly before his long-ruling father's death in 2003.
In 2018, he won a fourth consecutive presidential term with 86 percent of the votes in elections criticized by international observers.