BAKU (AP)–Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev pardoned more than 100 prisoners on Sunday–including dozens of opposition politicians whose release had been demanded by Europe’s top human rights body.
Fifty-three of the 114 people pardoned were on a list of political prisoners that the Council of Europe demanded be released–Aliyev’s office said in a statement.
Aliyev’s decree came just four days after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe warned Azerbaijan that it must free its political prisoners or face punitive measures–including a review in the former Soviet republic’s membership on the 46-nation council.
Council officials were pressing for the prisoners to be released by April to ensure parliamentary elections scheduled for November are free and fair.
Among those pardoned Sunday were seven top opposition leaders convicted for taking part in protests following a 2003 presidential vote and sentenced to prison terms of up to five years.
Aliyev was declared the winner of the 2003 poll to succeed his father Heydar. Western observers said the election was marred by fraud–and several thousand protesters marched through Baku–smashing cars and shop windows after the vote.
Like his father–the longtime ruler in this oil-rich Caspian state–Aliyev is accused of stifling political dissent and media independence–and opposition members mounted large protests earlier this month after the killing of a prominent journalist whose death they blamed on the authorities.