Rasul Jafarov
Rasul Jafarov

Azerbaijan sentenced a human rights activist Thursday to six and a half years in a prison colony on business-related charges.

A court in the capital, Baku, found Rasul Jafarov guilty on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power and forgery committed by a civil servant. Jafarov had denied all the allegations. His lawyer denounced the verdict as illegal and politically motivated, and said they would appeal it.

Jafarov, 30, helped organize various rights campaigns, including "Sing For Democracy" in 2013, when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest to draw international attention to the country's poor human rights record. He was arrested last August.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called Jafarov's sentencing a blatant violation of human rights and freedom of expression.

“Jafarov’s sentencing is nothing short of an act of injustice and it adds to the growing number of journalists and free-expression advocates serving time in Azerbaijani prisons for their work,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovi? said in a statement.

“This systematic and wide-scale persecution of independent voices in Azerbaijan is a clear violation of the fundamental and basic human right of freedom of expression," wrote Mijatovi?.

Mijatovi? noted that more than 10 journalists, bloggers and social media activists are in prison in Azerbaijan, one of the largest numbers incarcerated by any of the OSCE’s 57 member states.

They include Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Azadliq (RFE/RL-Azerbaijani Service); Seymur Hazi, a columnist for the newspaper Azadliq; Omar Mamedov, Abdul Abilov and Rashad Ramazanov, bloggers; Parviz Hashimli, a journalist; and Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of the azadxeber.org news website.

The chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Emin Huseynov, was forced into hiding while also facing charges of tax evasion, illegal business dealings and abuse of power.

Rights groups accuse the government of stepping up a campaign to silence opposition since President Ilham Aliyev was elected to a third term in 2013.

Aliyev, 53, became Azerbaijan's president in 2003 following an election that international observers said was flawed.

He took power after the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, a former Soviet KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled newly independent Azerbaijan since 1993.

Award for Ismayilova

Meanwhile, the PEN American Center in New York, which works to advance literature and freedom of expression, announced this week that it would honor Ismayilova with the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, given annually to a writer imprisoned or persecuted for his or her work.

Ismayilova will be honored May 5, which will mark five months since her imprisonment in Baku on December 5, 2014. She has reported extensively on the financial activities of Aliyev's family members.