Azerbaijan puts activist in pre-trial custody on smuggling charge he denies

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BAKU (Reuters) -An Azerbaijani pro-democracy activist was placed in pre-trial custody on Tuesday on smuggling charges he denied in the latest of a series of cases that have prompted Western concern about free speech and human rights.

A court placed Anar Mammadli under formal arrest for three months and 28 days following his detention on Monday.

"Anar Mammadli stated that he was not guilty," lawyer Javad Javadl told Reuters outside the court. "He said he was being prosecuted for his political activities and criticism of the authorities, and intended to appeal."

Mammadli is head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Training Centre (EMDТС), which had criticised the conduct of the February election in which President Ilham Aliyev won a fifth consecutive term.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the United States was "deeply troubled by the continuing arrests of members of Azerbaijani civil society", including Mammadli.

"We urge the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all individuals who are unjustly detained," he told reporters.

Mammadli was previously arrested in December 2013 and served a prison sentence for abuse of power. While behind bars, he was presented by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2014.

Mammadli is accused of smuggling cash into the country illegally - the same charge brought against seven journalists and media employees arrested in recent months. Their cases have drawn criticism from the United States, the European Union and press watchdogs.

"All those imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights should be released,", EU external affairs spokesperson Peter Stano posted on social network X on Tuesday.

Asked about the journalists' cases last week, Aliyev said media representatives "who illegally receive funding from abroad" had been arrested within the framework of the law.

"We have a free press and a free internet. If there is an internet in the country, then what kind of violation of press freedom can we talk about?" he said.

(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan and David Ljunggren; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Richard Chang)