By Nailia Bagirova Margarita Antidze
BAKU, March 18 (Reuters) - Azerbaijan sentenced the deputy head of the biggest opposition party and the leader of a human rights group to prison terms, a court spokesman said on Monday, in a case that critics say highlights a government-led crackdown in the oil-rich country.
Azerbaijan, a largely Muslim former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus, serves as a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as the source of energy supplies destined to Europe. The country is governed by strongman Ilham Aliyev, whose rule is often lambasted by international rights organisations for curbing public dissent and freedom of speech.
Tofig Yagublu, deputy head of the opposition Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the rights group Republican Alternative (ReAl), were sentenced to five years and seven years, respectively, according to the court spokesman.
The two were arrested in February 2013 on charges of organising and taking part in January demonstrations in the northern town of Ismailli, where thousands had protested, demanding the resignation of a provincial leader.
Allies and lawyers of the accused said the court's verdict was politically motivated since neither of the men had been in Ismailli during the unrest and they only visited the town, about 200 km (125 miles) northwest of the capital Baku, the day after the protests.
"The court's decision was not fair. It was a political order from the government," Fuad Aghayev, Mammadov's lawyer, told Reuters.
He also said that they would appeal the verdict.
Sixteen others have been also convicted and jailed to varying prison terms on the same charges since the unrest in Ismailli, a reflection of frustration at what some Azeris see as an overbearing government, corruption and a gaping divide between rich and poor.
Amnesty International has demanded "immediate and unconditional release" of Yagublu and Mammadov.
"The authorities in Azerbaijan seem to stop at nothing to crush dissent. (they) ... are being punished simply as critics of the government," said Denis Krivosheev, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
"Those in power show an absolute disregard for any dissenting voices in Azerbaijan."
Protests are usually quashed quickly by police in Azerbaijan, a country of 9 million people located between Iran and Russia. (Writing by Margarita Antidze, editing by G Crosse)