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Azerbaijan activist freed ahead of Clinton visit

Associated Press

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) – A jailed Azerbaijani opposition activist was released Monday, just days before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to visit this former Soviet nation.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Bakhtiyar Hajiyev could be freed early for good behavior after serving half his two-year sentence on charges of evading military service.

The Harvard-educated Hajiyev, 30, was at the forefront of an Arab Spring-inspired wave of peaceful demonstrations in Azerbaijan. Supporters say he was jailed in retaliation for his political activism.

Upon being released, Hajiyev insisted he would not be deterred from pushing for a softening in the authoritarian government’s style of rule.

“In some form or other, I will continue my activities in the interest of creating a lawful, democratic state,” he said.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators last month demanded Hajiyev’s release, describing his arrest as a violation of freedom of expression and association.

Clinton is set to visit Azerbaijan on Wednesday as part of a whistle-stop tour of South Caucasus nations. She has previously voiced support for jailed activists in countries she has visited.

Hajiyev’s release will spare President Ilham Aliyev’s government awkward questions as it tries to cast oil-rich Azerbaijan as a progressive European nation.

The media rights representative for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe hailed Monday’s decision and said she hoped imprisoned journalists would also soon be freed.

“The authorities could do more to foster freedom of expression by liberating all imprisoned journalists. I look forward to hearing more good news from Azerbaijan in the near future,” Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement.

The OSCE referred in the statement to Anar Bayramli, a reporter for Iranian media outlets accredited in Azerbaijan, who was arrested in February for allegedly possessing 4 grams of heroin.

Another journalist, Avaz Zeynalli, editor of the independent Khural newspaper, is currently on trial on bribery and extortion charges after complaints lodged by a deputy in the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.

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