BAKU An opposition journalist in Azerbaijan was sentenced on Thursday to eight years in prison in a case critics say highlights a government-led crackdown on dissent in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
A largely Muslim state in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan serves as a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as a source of energy supplies destined for Europe.
But the strongman rule of President Ilham Aliyev has been lambasted by international rights organizations for curbing freedom of speech.
Parviz Gashimly, a journalist, human rights activist and member of the Popular Front opposition party, was jailed after being convicted on charges of hooliganism and illegal weapons possession.
Gashimly, who had written critical articles about Aliyev, was arrested last September after police raided his apartment and reported finding firearms.
"Arguments of defense have not been taken into account, which is a proof that the whole case is politically motivated," Gashimly's lawyer, Elchin Sadikhov, told reporters. "Authorities are trying to intimidate journalists and prevent publication of critical articles." He said the verdict would be appealed.
The government says Azerbaijan's nine million people enjoy full freedom of speech and access to a lively opposition press.
Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, said earlier this month however that freedoms were deteriorating in Azerbaijan, urging authorities to uphold regional standards and citing a "worrying pattern" of abuse.
(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Mark Heinrich)