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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.