BAKU The president of Azerbaijan has pardoned 87 people, including journalists, rights activists and opponents jailed in cases the opposition says were evidence of shrinking political freedoms, state media reported on Thursday.
Rights groups accuse President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, of clamping down on dissent and rigging elections but say Azerbaijan's role as energy supplier to Europe and transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan has cushioned him from strong Western criticism.
Among those pardoned in a New Year amnesty was Aidyn Janiyev, a reporter for an opposition newspaper sentenced to three years in prison in November 2011 for hooliganism.
Prominent human rights activists, members of opposition Popular Front Party and people who protested against a ban on schoolgirls wearing Islamic dress were also freed.
The government says Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic of about 9 million people, sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, enjoys full freedom of speech and a free press.
One of the pardoned journalists was Anar Bayramli, a reporter for Iran's Sahar TV and the Fars news agency, who was arrested in February 2012 after police found him in possession of a small amount of heroin. He was sentenced to two years in prison in June.
Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have risen this year, with each side accusing the other of meddling in its affairs.
Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Azerbaijan has arrested dozens of people this year on suspicion of links to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and of plotting attacks, including on the Israeli ambassador to Baku. Each country denies the other's accusations.
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)