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Rights Groups Demand Release of Azerbaijan Opposition Leaders

Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch demanded the release of two leading opposition politicians in Azerbaijan, saying their arrests were politically motivated.

Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative movement who plans to run for president in elections slated for October, and Tofiq Yaqubli, deputy head of the main opposition party Musavat, were arrested Feb. 4 on charges of inciting riots in the northwestern town of Ismayilli last month. Both will remain in police custody for two months awaiting trial.

“The case has all the hallmarks of a politically motivated prosecution,” David Diaz-Jogeix, Amnesty International’s deputy director, said in a statement on the London-based group’s website. Mammadov and Yaqublu “have been jailed on charges of starting a riot that had begun spontaneously, before they even set foot in town. The prosecution so far has not presented any evidence supporting these charges.”

Dozens of people were detained after residents of Ismayilli, 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of the capital, Baku, torched a hotel and luxury cars and damaged the local governor’s house in two days of riots. Authorities accused “destructive forces,” including Mammadov and Yaqubli, of provoking the unrest, charges both men dismissed as politically motivated.

New York-based Human Rights Watch is concerned that the riots will be used as a pretext to silence “two outspoken government critics,” Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher, said in an e-mailed statement. The authorities should release Mammadov and Yaqublu from pre-trial detention and produce “credible evidence that the charges are justified,” he said.

The U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan yesterday expressed concern about the arrests, urging the government of President Ilham Aliyev to ensure a fair and transparent investigation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zulfugar Agayev in Baku at zagayev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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