May 4, 2011 / 6:29 PM / in 9 years

Azerbaijan activist gets prison term, to appeal

* Lawyer says charges were fabricated

* Case underscores lack of freedoms, opposition says

BAKU, May 4 (Reuters) - A young Azeri political activist was sentenced to 30 months in prison on Wednesday in a case the opposition said highlights shrinking freedoms under hardline President Ilham Aliyev.

The lawyer for the activist, Jabbar Savalan, said the charges against him, heard in an Azeri court, were fabricated.

“I don’t agree with the verdict and...we will appeal against this sentence,” lawyer Anar Gasymov told Reuters.

Savalan, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party, was briefly arrested on drugs charges a month before he organised a nationwide anti-government protest in March.

That protest sparked a wave of others in the oil-producing state, which were snuffed out by authorities.

More than 100 people were detained during protests in April and March in the mainly Muslim country of 9 million people.

Amnesty International says 10 activists face long prison terms for their involvement in the last protest, which took place in April.

Sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan is an energy supplier to Europe and a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan — a role rights groups say has cushioned the country from Western criticism of its record on democracy.

Rights groups accuse Aliyev’s government of trampling on democratic freedoms under the cover of an oil-fuelled economic boom, but analysts see little real threat to the president, who has ruled since 2003 when he succeeded his father and long-serving leader Heydar.

Azerbaijan released two opposition bloggers last year before the end of their prison terms after the case was condemned by the West as a blow to free speech in the country.

An editor of opposition newspaper Real Azerbaijan is still in jail, despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling in April last year that his imprisonment was illegal.

Reporting by Lada Yevgrashina and Afet Mehtiyeva; writing by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; editing by Michael Roddy

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