MOSCOW (Reuters) - New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) decried as politically motivated the sentencing of a leading rights activist in Azerbaijan on Thursday to 8-1/2 years in jail, saying it was part of a campaign to muzzle dissent.
Leyla Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, has been held in detention since July, 2014, on charges of treason, espionage and tax evasion.
Her case is one of several in which rights activists and journalists have been sentenced to prison this year. Critics of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev accuse him of cracking down on dissent in the former Soviet republic. He denies the charges.
HRW said her husband Arif was sentenced to seven years in jail. "The timing and circumstances of the criminal charges indicate that they are a thin pretext aimed at smearing the Yunuses, stopping and punishing their work, and intimidating other activists," it said in a statement.
"The case against the Yunuses is part of the government's sweeping crackdown on perceived critics and independent groups."
Another rights group, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, echoed HRW comments, saying the sentencing was "outrageous".
The Observatory is a joint project by two umbrella groups, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris and the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).
"Our organisations strongly condemn today's sentences in the Yunus case, as well as all the previous sentences against other human rights defenders in the country. They are only aimed to silence critical voices," the group said in a statement.
Both advocacy groups highlighted health issues the two activists have been suffering from and said the court proceedings violated their right to a fair trial.
Although rights groups accuse the Azeri government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents to prevent the rise of any political opposition, Baku is courted by the West as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Tom Heneghan