The European Union has welcomed Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s decision to pardon jailed rights activists and political opponents as part of a broader amnesty and said it expects similar moves to follow.
A statement by a spokesperson for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said on March 17 that representatives of political parties, nongovernmental organizations, bloggers, and journalists were among more than 400 people pardoned, which it called “a welcome step.”
The EU “expects that further similar steps will follow in future in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments,” the statement said, adding that the bloc “will continue its engagement with Azerbaijan to step up the cooperation, including on human rights, which constitutes an essential element of our relationship.”
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.
Rights groups and Western governments have urged the Azerbaijani authorities to release political prisoners for years and accused the government of fabricating criminal cases to stifle dissent and media freedom.
In all, the amnesty covers a total of 431 people, including several members of the opposition considered to be political prisoners by international rights organizations, according to Aliyev's decree signed on March 16 to mark the Norouz new year holiday.
Under the mass 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.
It is common in Azerbaijan for the president to pardon prisoners ahead of Norouz, which is on March 21, or to mark other celebrations.
However, it is unusual for political prisoners to be included in the pardon.