Azerbaijan sentences opposition journalist to 5 years in jail

BAKU (Reuters) - A journalist in Azerbaijan was sentenced on Thursday to five years in prison in a case critics say highlights a government-led crackdown on dissent in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.

Seymur Hazi, a journalist with opposition newspaper Azadlig and a member of the Popular Front opposition party, was originally jailed last August after being convicted on charges of hooliganism.

"This verdict is not fair and the whole case has been fabricated," Hazi's lawyer, Adyl Ismailov, told Reuters. He said the verdict would be appealed.

Rights advocates accuse veteran President Ilham Aliyev's government of muzzling and jailing opponents -- charges it denies. Hazi had written critical articles about Aliyev.

Several other journalists and human rights defenders were sentenced to prison terms last year on charges including tax evasion, illegal business activity and hooliganism. Defense lawyers called the charges unfounded and politically motivated.

The Azeri government escalated its repression against its critics in 2014, with a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual World Report published on Thursday.

The 57-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has called for the release of all imprisoned journalists and free speech advocates in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic, says its 9 million citizens enjoy full freedom of speech and a lively opposition press. The West has courted the country as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas.

(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Crispian Balmer)