Azerbaijan frees human rights advocate from jail

BAKU (Reuters) - Azeri human rights activist and lawyer Intigam Aliyev was freed from jail on Monday, his lawyer said. Azerbaijan pardoned 148 prisoners including journalists, rights activists and political opponents this month 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 avoid complaints over crackdowns on free speech in Azerbaijan, a major oil and natural gas exporter. The Baku supreme court on Monday reduced lawyer Aliyev's seven-and-a-half-year prison term to a five-year probation period. Aliyev was detained in the Azeri capital Baku in August 2014 and charged with tax evasion, abuse of office and illegal entrepreneurship. London-based Amnesty International said Aliyev's release was "an overdue step toward righting the injustice against him". "Prisoner of conscience Intigam Aliyev has paid dearly for his frontline human rights work – the only 'crime' he committed was to defend his fellow citizens' freedoms," said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. Amnesty International said seven prisoners of conscience were still jailed in Azerbaijan. The government says Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea republic of about 9 million people bordering 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 Dmitry Solovyov/Ruth Pitchford)