An Azerbaijani court has sentenced a prominent journalist to six years in prison for spying for Armenia, in a case that is seen as a continuation of Baku's recent crackdown on political dissent.
Rauf Mirkadirov was found guilty of "high treason, namely of spying for Armenia," the journalist's lawyer said on Monday. The lawyer, Fuad Agayev, said that Mirkadirov "rejects the accusations as politically motivated."
Until his arrest last year, Mirkadirov, 54, worked as a correspondent for the Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo," which is published in Azerbaijan.
The Prosecutor-General's Office alleged that Mirkadirov "was recruited by the Armenian secret services in 2008 and supplied Yerevan with information on Azerbaijan's state secrets." Mirkadirov was accused of meeting with Armenian agents several times in Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey and providing them with images and documents that damaged Azerbaijan’s security and defense capabilities.
Prosecutors claimed Mirkadirov was "recruited " as a spy by prominent Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus.
Leyla and Arif Yunus were jailed last year and sentenced to lengthy prison terms earlier this year after being convicted of fraud and other crimes in a trial widely denounced as a travesty, but have since been released from custody on health grounds. Their convictions technically remain in place, and the two continue to face charges of treason in a separate case stemming from allegations they spied for Armenia.
Mirkadirov was based in Ankara for several years and published articles critical of both the Turkish and Azerbaijani leadership. In 2008, he was awarded the Gerd Bucerius "Free Press of Eastern Europe" international prize "for achievements in the development of independent media."
Mirkadirov was detained in Baku after he was deported from Turkey in April 2014. His arrest sparked widespread condemnation from international rights groups and the West.
Human Rights Watch has said Mirkadirov was being "punished for his outspoken views." Mirkadirov's prosecution sent "a chilling message to others that dissent will not be tolerated," the rights watchdog said.
Reporters Without Borders last week called the journalist "the latest victim of President Ilham Aliyev's witch hunt against his regime's critics."
Rights groups consider Azerbaijan’s government to be among the world's most repressive when it comes to the media.
Mirkadirov's sentencing came the same day that Azerbaijan's president signed a decree pardoning 210 prisoners. The amnesty, however, didn't include those widely considered to be political prisoners, including award-winning journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova and rights activist Rasul Jafarov.
Local rights activists say there are more than 90 prisoners of conscience in the oil-rich former Soviet country jailed on politically motivated charges.