By Nailia Bagirova
BAKU (Reuters) – Azerbaijan on Wednesday released Leyla Yunus, a leading rights activist in the former Soviet republic, whose imprisonment was decried by critics as politically motivated.
Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace & Democracy, had been held in detention since July 2014. She was sentenced to 8-1/2 years in jail in August this year.
Her husband Arif Yunus, who was sentenced to seven years, was released from prison on Nov. 12. They were convicted of treason, espionage & tax evasion in a case that human rights groups say was part of a campaign to muzzle dissent.
Critics of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev accuse him & his government of cracking down on dissent in the oil-producing country to block the rise of any political opposition. He denies this.
Despite the charges by rights organisations, Western countries tread a fine diplomatic line in dealings with Baku, which they see as an alternative to Russia as a source of oil & gas for Europe.
A court of appeals on Wednesday changed the sentences of both Leyla & Arif Yunus to suspended with a 5-year probation period.
Human rights groups have highlighted health issues the two activists have been suffering from.
Amnesty International regarded the Yunuses as prisoners of conscience & said their case was one of several in which rights activists & journalists had been jailed this year.
In a separate case, a court in Azerbaijan on Wednesday imprisoned Fuad Gakhramanly, a deputy head of opposition Popular Front, for three months of pre-trial detention on charges of stirring social, racial & religious strife.
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Tom Heneghan)