BAKU Azerbaijan suffered an embarrassing and sharply timed rebuke on Friday when Europe's main human rights and democracy forum accused it of intimidating and repressing its critics.
The rap from the parliamentary arm of the 47-nation Council of Europe came only a week after Azerbaijan, an oil-producing former Soviet republic, took over the chairmanship of the Council's ministerial committee.
"In certain areas, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, the situation appears to have deteriorated and this has to be addressed urgently," said Anne Brasseur, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
She said on a visit to the capital Baku that "opposition figures, journalists who present dissenting opinion, bloggers and civil society activists are all too often...subjected to intimidation and repression.
"This is a more than worrying state of affairs for a member state taking up the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers."
Azerbaijan took over on May 14 as chairman of the committee, the Council's decision-making body which brings together the member states' foreign ministers. It will hold the position for six months.
The mainly Muslim country, sandwiched between Russia and Iran, 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 Baku of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges the government denies.
"Democratization and protection of human rights is a process... We are in that process," Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammedyarov said.
Brasseur said she hoped Azeri human rights activist Ilgar Mammadov would soon be released, after the European Court of Human Rights described his imprisonment on Thursday as an "unjustified restriction of freedom".
Mammadov, leader of the rights group Republican Alternative (ReAl), was jailed for seven years for organizing and taking part in demonstrations in the northern town of Ismailli, where thousands protested to demand the resignation of a provincial leader in January 2013.
Allies and lawyers of the accused said the court's verdict was politically motivated.
Seventeen others, including the deputy head of the biggest opposition party, have been convicted and sentenced to varying prison terms on the same charges since the unrest in Ismailli, a reflection of frustration at what some Azeris see as an overbearing government, corruption and a gaping divide between rich and poor.
Protests are usually quashed quickly by police in the country of 9 million people.
The European Court of Human Rights said the courts in Azerbaijan had violated Mammadov's right to liberty and ordered the government to pay him 22,000 euros ($30,000) compensation.
"I hope he will be released from detention," Brasseur said.
"Problems do not go away by ignoring them. That's why we have to speak out." ($1 = 0.7323 Euros)
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)