In a sudden display of lenience, Azerbaijan’s strong-armed leader, President Ilham Aliyev, pardoned 137 inmates, including his critics, in one fell swoop on March 17.
Lawyer and rights defender Rasul Jafarov, prominent democracy advocate Anar Mammadli, several members of the youth movement NIDA and opposition party Musavat are among the prisoners to be freed under the amnesty. International civil liberty watchdogs have long insisted these individuals were persecuted in retribution for their criticism of the government and had pressed for their release.
Earlier on the same day, an Appeals Courts in Baku ordered the release of a controversially arrested journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov. The Appeals Court overturned Mirkadirov’s six-year sentence on charges for spying for Armenia, Azerbaijan neighbor and enemy. Amidst protests from international human-rights advocates, Mirkadirov spent two years in prison.
Late last year, a well-known peace and democracy activist, Leyla Yunus, who, like Mirkadirov, was engaged in civil diplomacy activism with Armenia, was freed from prison because of poor health. Her husband was also freed, but she was not cleared of charges that included spying for Armenia, an accusation seen as preposterous by civil-rights watchdogs.
There are still plenty of dissidents in Azerbaijan’s prisons, including the nation’s best known journalist, Khadija Ismayilova.* The government, however, maintains that it has not imprisoned anyone for political reasons.
Aliyev did not elaborate about what motivated his mellowing toward the government’s jailed critics, but pro-government news sites attributed it to the eight-day-long state holiday of Novruz, the Zorastrian New Year and start of spring, which kicks off on March 20. Prisoner amnesties usually precede the holiday, the most notable in Azerbaijan’s calendar.
*Khadija Ismayilova worked as a freelance reporter for EurasiaNet.org.