Dozens of individuals identified as political prisoners by international rights organizations were included in a mass holiday pardon by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, providing the latest evidence of what appears to be an softening of his government's refusal to tolerate any political dissent.
Among more than 400 convicted people freed Saturday on the eve of Novruz holiday were former health minister Ali Insanov, deputy chairpersons of the Popular Front Party Gozal Bayramli and Fuad Gahramanli; journalist Fikret Faramazoglu, members of other opposition parties and young activists.
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic praised the mass release, calling it "a welcome step." In a written statement, Kocijancic made it clear that EU expected Azerbaijan to honor its international commitments with "further similar steps" in the future.
The pardons came amid a series of reform moves by the Aliyev government, which has long been criticized by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for imprisoning individuals on politically motivated charges.
In recent months, Aliyev has issued decrees addressing burdensome credit loans, providing compensation to the families of military veterans, and increasing student stipends.
But despite the release of 51 individuals identified as political prisoners, dozens more remain imprisoned on what observers view as political motivated charges. Among them are prominent journalists Afgan Mukhtarli and Seymour Hazi, who have criticized Aliyev for corruption.
One of those released Saturday was Ilkin Rustamzade, a blogger and member of the pro-democracy NIDA youth group, who served four years on charges of inciting violence and organizing mass disorder in connection with a peaceful protest in 2013.
"I did not expect this," Rustamzade told reporters outside the prison gates. "But our struggle continues. What is important is not our freedom, but the freedom of Azerbaijan and the triumph of our values."
Other pardoned individuals also struck a defiant tone.
"The motives behind my arrests were purely political," PFPA deputy chairwoman Gozal Bayramli told reporters. "Like most other political prisoners, I did not lose my will and determination. … Starting today, I will resume my struggle."
Ali Insanov, the former minister of health, thanked the "democratic West and the United States" for their efforts to win his release.
"I cannot feel like I am in freedom. In fact, they have moved me from a small prison into a big prison. Because Azerbaijan is a big prison," Insanov said.
Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003, shortly after his father, former president Haydar Aliyev, died in office.
Buoyed by oil revenues, Ilham Aliyev's rule has been marked by a tightening grip on civil society and severe crackdowns on opposition parties and independent media.
Washington-based Freedom House has for years categorized Azerbaijan as a "not free country" alongside the most repressive nations in the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) considers Azerbaijan to be one of the "10 most censored countries."