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Azerbaijani Opposition Leaders, Activists Sentenced In Baku

Azerbaijani theologian Taleh Bagirzade has been sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and inciting hatred.

BAKU -- A court in Baku has sentenced several opposition figures to lengthy prison terms after convicting them of publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and of inciting ethnic, religious, and social hatred.

The Baku City Court for Grave Crimes sentenced theologian Taleh Bagirzade, the leader of a group called the Movement for Muslim Unity, and his deputy Abbas Huseynov to 20 years in prison. Fuad Qahramanli, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sixteen other activists received prison terms ranging from 14 1/2 to 19 years.

Aside from Qahramanli, the defendants were arrested in November-December 2015 during a series of raids against alleged religious extremists in Nardaran, a village on the outskirts of Baku.

Seven people, including two police officers, were killed during the raids.

Qahramanli was arrested several days later for his posts on Facebook about the deadly raids and charged with public calls to overthrow the government.

Lawyers for the accused said the case against them was fabricated, and the defendants pleaded not guilty. Some said they incriminated themselves under torture during questioning.

Rights defenders in Azerbaijan say a total of 87 people have been arrested in what is known as the Nardaran case. Several were sentenced to prison in 2016, and two other groups are currently being tried separately.

Critics say the government of President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, has used trumped-up charges as part of a persistent campaign to silence dissent in the oil-producing, predominantly Muslim former Soviet republic.