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Azerbaijan, Urged to Free Prisoners, Cancels EU Delegation Visit

FILE - Critics accuse President Ilham Aliyev of trying to muzzle dissent, but his government says freedom of speech and opposition media thrive in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan canceled a European Commission delegation visit Friday and said it might review relations with the EU after the bloc's parliament called on it to free an investigative journalist and several human rights figures.

Rights activists in the oil- and gas-exporting former Soviet republic have accused President Ilham Aliyev of waging a broad campaign to muzzle dissent by jailing his critics.

Aliyev's government says the Caspian Sea country, a mainly Muslim republic of 9 million people, enjoys full freedom of speech and a lively opposition media.

FILE - Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
FILE - Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The European Parliament passed a resolution Thursday calling for the immediate, unconditional release of Khadija Ismayilova, former Baku bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and several other Azeri human rights activists and lawyers.

"The decision to cancel the [European Commission] visit is linked to a biased resolution on Azerbaijan," the Azeri foreign ministry said in a statement. "In general, we should review our ties with the European Union, where anti-Azeri and anti-Islam tendencies are strong."

Despite criticism of its rights record, the West has courted Azerbaijan as an alternative to Russia for oil and gas supplies. The European Commission delegation had been due to visit Azerbaijan next week to discuss a proposed strategic partnership agreement.

The Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned Malena Mard, the resident EU delegation chief in Azerbaijan, over the resolution and told this was a blow to Azeri-EU relations.

"The constant biased attitude of the European parliament to Azerbaijan shows that the human rights issue is used as a tool of political pressure on the country," said Mahmud Mammadguliyev, a deputy foreign minister. "But the European parliament members should know that these attempts are doomed to be unsuccessful from the very beginning."

Ismayilova, 39, is known for exposing corruption among Baku's ruling elite. She was sentenced on Sept. 1 to 7½ years in jail after being convicted of embezzlement, illegal business activities, tax evasion and abuse of her position.

Rights groups condemned the case as politically motivated. Azerbaijan jailed two rights activists in August and one more in April.

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