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Azerbaijani Politician's Release Earns Partial Western Approval

Ilgar Mammadov, center, the leader of the opposition REAL movement, walks with supporters after being released from a prison in Shaki, Azerbaijan, Aug. 13, 2018.
Ilgar Mammadov, center, the leader of the opposition REAL movement, walks with supporters after being released from a prison in Shaki, Azerbaijan, Aug. 13, 2018.

The international community is cautiously welcoming the conditional release of an Azerbaijani opposition leader after five years in prison on what human rights activists have described as trumped-up charges.

While encouraged by the release of Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, activists and the U.S. government are calling on the Azerbaijani government to end all remaining restrictions on the political figure.

"Mammadov's conviction and imprisonment for over five years raised serious concerns about the rule of law in Azerbaijan," said a statement issued by U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.

The United States urged the Azerbaijani government to drop all charges against Mammadov "in keeping with its international obligations and the rulings of the European Court for Human Rights."

Mammadov was arrested in February 2013 after traveling to Ismayilli, where residents were protesting alleged abuses by the local governor. He subsequently was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of "incitement to violence."

On Monday, a regional court reduced Mammadov's remaining two-year jail sentence to a suspended term while imposing limitations on his movements.

"This is not a complete, but a partial victory," Mammadov told a group of supporters immediately after his release.

Giorgi Gogia, Europe and Central Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, spoke to VOA about the treatment of Mammadov and the terms of his release.

"Obviously, this is a conditional release that puts restrictions on his freedoms, which are totally unjustified under international norms," he said.

International pressure

Gogia argued that Mammadov was released only because of growing international pressure.

"There have been at least a dozen calls by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for his immediate release," he said, noting the committee had decided to launch unprecedented legal proceedings against Azerbaijan.

The Baku government maintains that no one is persecuted in Azerbaijan on political grounds, and that the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens are respected. But Gogia said dozens of people have been arrested in the course of a brutal crackdown by the government of President Ilham Aliyev.

"There are dozens and dozens of others who have been arrested under a very vicious government crackdown against critics in Azerbaijan. Authorities have jailed dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, journalists," he said.

Gogia called on Azerbaijan to end the crackdown on dissent and uphold its obligations as a country that aspires to a closer partnership with European institutions.

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, an organization founded after World War II "to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law." For years, the Baku government ignored demands by the Council's leadership to release Mammadov.