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Freed Opposition Leader Says Azerbaijan's President Orchestrates Imprisonments

Tofig Yagublu is one of 16 jailed Azerbaijani opposition politicians, journalists,and rights activists who were released on court orders during March. (file photo)
Tofig Yagublu is one of 16 jailed Azerbaijani opposition politicians, journalists,and rights activists who were released on court orders during March. (file photo)

An Azerbaijani opposition leader who was recently freed from jail has accused President Ilham Aliyev of personally orchestrating a campaign of political imprisonments in the country.

Tofig Yagublu, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party, told journalists in Baku on March 31 that "all political prisoners" in Azerbaijan have been "arrested on the personal orders" of Aliyev.

Yagublu said Aliyev "has personally taken charge" of the judicial process that leads to convictions on trumped-up charges, as well as court decisions about prison sentences that result in the conditional releases of political prisoners.

"It is all Aliyev himself," Yagublu said.

Yagublu spent two years in prison until his court-ordered release on March 17.

He is one of 16 jailed Azerbaijani opposition politicians, journalists,and rights activists listed by human rights groups as "political prisoners" who were released on court orders during March.

Twelve more rights campaigners and journalists on that list remain in prison -- including the opposition leader and rights activist Ilgar Mammadov and investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova.

Ismayilova's reporting has highlighted corruption within Aliyev's own family and closest circle of friends.

The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch has accused authorities in Azerbaijan of using trumped-up charges of tax evasion, drug and weapons possession, and even high treason to jail political activists.

Analysts say Aliyev's recent pardons of some political prisoners were an apparent move to deflect Western criticism about Azerbaijan's poor rights record.

Yagublu and other opposition leaders say there are many more imprisoned Azerbaijanis who have been wrongly jailed on spurious, politically motivated charges.

Yagublu claimed that the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan consistently hovers above 80.

"Some have been released, but then others are imprisoned," he said. "Under these circumstances, it seems that the total number [of political prisoners] is not about to fall."

Amnesty International estimated in its latest annual report on Azerbaijan that at least 18 government critics remained in prison at the end of 2015.

Yagublu said that none of the court-ordered releases over the past month has involved acquittals that would clear political prisoners of their criminal records.

"It is just that the terms of their prison sentences have been changed," he said.

The European Union and international rights groups have welcomed the decisions to free some of Aliyev's critics but say Azerbaijan's government needs to do more to improve its record.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice president of the European Parliament, has called the release of opposition activists "a sign that Azerbaijan's government is interested in restoring relations with the European Union by respecting such fundamental rights as freedom of speech and assembly."

But he said other prisoners need to be released as well.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Aliyev in Washington on March 31 on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit.

In addition to Azerbaijan's oil and natural gas exports to Western Europe and Baku's decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, the two discussed Baku's record on democracy and human rights.

The U.S. State Department said Kerry welcomed recent "positive steps" by Azerbaijan toward improving its rights record, but also urged further progress.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and Ron Synovitz in Prague
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