BAKU, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Azerbaijan on Tuesday extended the pre-trial detention of a journalist critical of President Ilham Aliyev, prompting concern from Europe’s democracy watchdog OSCE about “rapidly deteriorating” media freedoms in the ex-Soviet state.
Rights advocates and critics accuse Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, citing the case of journalist Khadija Ismailova of Radio Azadliq (Liberty) as an example.
The 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe media freedoms envoy Dunja Mijatovic called for the release of all imprisoned journalists and free speech advocates in Azerbaijan, including Ismailova.
“Mijatovic again raised concern about the rapidly deteriorating media freedom situation in Azerbaijan in general, including recent raids on Radio Azadliq and the IRFS office in Baku,” an OSCE statement said.
The IRFS is the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, an Azeri rights group.
Western criticism of human rights problems in Azerbaijan has been relatively muted given efforts to court Baku as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas.
Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic, says that its nine million citizens enjoy full freedom of speech as well as a lively opposition press.
An Azeri court earlier on Tuesday ordered Ismailova’s pre-trial detention lengthened by two months.
She has been in pre-trial detention since December on charges of inciting a former radio colleague to attempt suicide and she faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Several journalists and rights activists were sentenced to prison terms last year in Azerbaijan on charges including tax evasion, illegal business activity and hooliganism.
Their defence lawyers dismissed the cases as politically motivated and part of a government-led crackdown on dissent. (Reporting by Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Mark Heinrich)