BAKU, April 16 (Reuters) - Azerbaijan has sentenced a human rights activist to six and a half years in jail on embezzlement and tax evasion charges, a court spokesman said on Thursday, in a case that critics say laid bare growing government repression.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003, has been courted by the West because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
Rasul Jafarov, a free expression and free media advocate and a well-known human rights activist, was arrested in August 2014 and charged with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power and forgery.
Jafarov’s lawyer, Phariz Namazov, said his client would appeal the conviction. “This verdict is a confirmation of an absence of independent courts in Azerbaijan,” he told Reuters.
The government has denied accusations that it is muzzling dissent and jailing opponents.
The 57-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned Thursday’s verdict.
“Jafarov’s sentencing is nothing short of an act of injustice and it adds to the growing number of journalists and free expression advocates serving time in Azerbaijani prisons for their work,” Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE freedom of media representative, said in a statement.
“This systematic and wide-scale persecution of independent voices in Azerbaijan is a clear violation of the fundamental and basic human right of freedom of expression.”
Mijatovic said there were more than 10 journalists, bloggers and social media activists in prison in Azerbaijan, one of the largest numbers incarcerated in any OSCE member state. (Reporting by Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Crispian Balmer)