Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev pardoned 148 prisoners, including 14 activists that were deemed "prisoners of conscience", on March 17. The decision, announced on the president's website, comes as a surprise on the eve of the week-long Nowruz (Persian New Year) holiday.
Azerbaijan's human rights record has deteriorated since 2014, when the regime began to prosecute some of the most prominent journalists and activists on trumped-up charges related to economic wrongdoings, and to expel a number of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The country is deemed as "Not Free" by the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House (FH). With an aggregate score of 20 in FH's "Freedom in the World" ranking, Azerbaijan is ranked lower than Russia, Iraq and Turkey, but higher than China.
The most well-known political prisoner in Azerbaijan - out of about 100 such prisoners - is journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whose investigations revealed the extent of the first family's wealth. Arrested in December 2014 and sentenced to seven and a half years behind bars in September 2015 over charges of tax evasion, Ismayilova remains in prison and her case has been taken on by high-profile human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.
Ismayilova's sentencing in September led to a rift between Azerbaijan and the European Union (EU) after European Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini criticised the regime for its human rights violations. However, relations between Baku and Brussels appear to be improving. On a recent visit to Baku on February 29, Mogherini focused on energy links between the EU and Azerbaijan and talked about a new bilateral agreement between the parties, while sweeping the human rights topic under the carpet.
Meanwhile, two other high-profile political prisoners - couple Leyla and Yunus Arif - were released from prison in November and December. Like Ismayilova, they had been sentenced to eight and a half and seven and a half years over trumped-up economic charges. Human rights activists protested their imprisonment and the deteriorating state of their health. They both face a separate trial for treason because of their cooperation with Armenian civil society groups.
Among those pardoned on March 17 are Anar Mammadli, a prominent human rights activit who was serving a five-year jail term; journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, who had served 23 months in solitary confinement for allegedly cooperating with Azerbaijan's arch-enemy Armenia; several activists congregated under the "Nida" (Exclamation in Azerbaijani) opposition movement – Mohammed Azizov, Rashadat Akhundov and Rashad Hasanov – and members of the opposition Musavat party Tofiq Yagubly, Yadigar Sadigov and Siraj Karimov.
Rasul Jafarov, one of the leading human rights lawyers in Azerbaijan, had his six-year prison sentence replaced by a five-year probation. On March 17, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) deemed Jafarov's arrest as a violation of liberty and a limitation on his human rights.
Some voices, including Amnesty International, have hailed the pardon as a "glimmer of hope" for human rights in Azerbaijan. Mogherini and Pedro Agramunt, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), both commended Aliyev for his decision.
However, little has changed as far as human rights are concerned in Azerbaijan. The pardons more likely serve Baku's foreign policy goals of mending ties with the West and are an olive branch extended to the Azerbaijani people on the eve of a major holiday in the country. Important journalists and activists such as Ismayilova and Ilgar Mamedov remain behind bars, while others - such as journalist Emin Mili - have been forced into exile, had their citizenship stripped and their relatives left behind in Azerbaijan thrown in jail or harassed.
Given the large number of political prisoners who continue to be behind bars, it is unlikely that Baku has had a sudden change of heart about its treatment of civil society.
Aliyev is expected to travel to Washington for a nuclear summit on March 31. Several members of US Congress, such as New Jersey representative Chris Smith (R), have requested that Washington put sanctions on Baku over its treatment of political dissidents and journalists.