* Council of Europe rights commissioner says no progress
* Criticises nine-year sentence handed down to editor
* Authorities say Azerbaijan enjoys full freedom of speech
By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI, March 18 Azerbaijan must uphold
European human rights standards and move from promises to real
promotion of basic freedoms, the Council of Europe's
commissioner for human rights said on Monday.
Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic, has been
governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father
in 2003. It has been courted by the West because of its role as
an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
Rights groups accuse Azerbaijan of muzzling dissent and
jailing opponents, charges the government denies.
Nils Muiznieks, commissioner for human rights for the
Council of Europe, said he had seen no progress toward greater
freedom of expression since a visit to the oil-producing Caspian
Sea state in November.
"I am concerned by reports of increasing repression and
restrictions on basic human rights," he said in an emailed
response to questions.
"It appears that the authorities are seeking to muzzle civil
society and independent thinkers."
The 47-nation Council of Europe promotes common principles
on human rights and democracy.
"It is crucial that Azerbaijan, as a member of the Council
of Europe, uphold all human rights standards to which it is
bound. If not, it risks undermining its credibility within the
European system of human rights protection," Muiznieks said.
Police fired water cannon and rubber bullets on March 10 to
disperse a crowd demonstrating against violence in the military
in the capital, Baku, and detained dozens of protesters.
Last week, a court sentenced Avaz Zeynally, editor of the
Khural daily, to nine years in prison for extortion, a charge he
says is a baseless government reprisal for a story criticising
"I regret to see this abrupt setback," Muiznieks said of the
sentence, which followed the release of some jailed journalists.
Muiznieks said he had held constructive talks with the
authorities, including on freedom of expression, during a
November visit to the South Caucasus nation.
"I haven't seen any progress so far," he said.
"I am hoping to see actions, not just to hear words."
The government says the country's nine million people enjoy
full freedom of speech and access to a lively opposition press.
"There is democracy in Azerbaijan and rallies are allowed,
but in specific places and not in the centre of Baku as this
leads to the violation of public order," said Eldar Ibrahimov, a
lawmaker from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.
He said Azerbaijan was criticised "because Azerbaijan is a
Muslim country which is developing at a high speed and many
cannot react to our development calmly".
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and