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BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan pardoned 148 prisoners including journalists, rights activists and political opponents on Thursday, state media said, in an apparent move to deflect Western criticism of the ex-Soviet republic's human rights record.
Analysts say President Ilham Aliyev has included some political prisoners in amnesties in recent years to deflect complaints over crackdowns on free speech in Azerbaijan, a major oil and natural gas exporter.
Among those pardoned were rights advocates Taleh Khasmamadov, Hilal Mammadov and Rasul Jafarov, opposition National Statehood Party chief Nemat Panahli, six members of an opposition party and a civic youth movement, ex-election watchdog chief Anar Mammadli and journalist Parviz Hasimov.
All were jailed after convictions on charges including tax evasion, illegal business activity and drug trafficking.
Prominent journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, convicted in 2014 of espionage and high treason which he denied, was also freed after the Baku court of appeals cut his six-year prison term to a five-year probation period. He was not in the amnesty list.
Mirkadyrov and the other freed prisoners denied the charges against them, calling them politically motivated and fabricated.
Mirkadyrov was a political correspondent at the independent Azeri Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo (Mirror) in Turkey, from where he was deported to Azerbaijan two years ago.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini welcomed the amnesty following talks she had in Baku two weeks ago, saying she hoped they would lead to releases of remaining imprisoned rights activists. About 10 are still jailed.
The government says Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea republic of about 9 million people sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, enjoys full freedom of speech and a free press.
Reporting by Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Mark Heinrich