Move seen as attempt to deflect criticism over human rights record
148 prisoners in Azerbaijan are enjoying civilian life once again. They were released as part of an amnesty ordered by President Ilham Aliyev. 28 people on a "political prisoners" list compiled by Azerbaijani rights groups were included in the move.
They were joined by journalists, rights activists and political opponents. All were jailed after convictions on charges including tax evasion, illegal business activity and drug trafficking. The amnesty appears to be an attempt by the ex-Soviet republic to deflect Western criticism of its human rights record.
Analysts say President Aliyev has included some political prisoners in amnesties in recent years to deflect complaints over crackdowns on free speech.
Among those released is prominent journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov. He was convicted in 2014 of espionage and high treason. He was freed after the Baku court of appeals cut his six-year prison term to a five-year probation period. He says the amnesty is a good sign but only a start.
"Undoubtedly it is a step forward, the amnesty is a step forward. But it is not complete victory. Complete victory will be when we will get absolution. And I think we will attain this absolution." released azeri journalist, Rauf Mirkadyrov says. "Now that he has his freedom back he is unfazed and intends to return to his former employment".
"Journalism is my bread, I never studied for anything else and I simply do not have another (trade) in this life. Naturally, I will return (to journalism). How good I will be at it, I will judge then myself." Mirkadyrov says.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini is welcoming the amnesty. She says says she hopes it will lead to the releases of several other imprisoned human rights activists. Investigative journalists, regime critics and a number of other prominent campaigners are still behind bars according to Human Rights Watch. One person who has been pardoned is Omar Mamedov. An opposition youth activist, he was arrested in May 2013 alongside several others, during protests in the capital Baku against violence within the armed forces.
"I spent the whole day in the city today meeting my friends. Freedom is an amazing feeling, I would not exchange it for any money. I want the rest of the political prisoners, my friends to get out of prison as well." Omar Mamedov, "Nida" youth movement member says.
A major oil and natural gas exporter, Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 in the 2015 Press Freedom Index. Its government is led by president Aliyev who has been in office since 2003. In elections in 2013 he won 85% of the vote. The ballot was criticised by the U.S. and international monitors who said it was seriously flawed.