BAKU -- Faiq Amirli, the financial director of the Azerbaijani opposition daily Azadliq (Liberty), has walked free after an appeals court replaced his prison term with a suspended sentence.
Amirli, who is also a member of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan (AXCP) party, was released on September 15.
Investigators said that Amirli, who was arrested in August 2016, possessed books by Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom Turkish authorities blame for a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July of that year.
Amirli was convicted on July 24 of tax evasion, inciting religious hatred, and violating the rights of citizens under the pretext of conducting religious rites. He has maintained his innocence.
Azerbaijani and international rights groups have accused Baku of using Erdogan's crackdown on Gulen’s followers as a pretext to target critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government.
Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt.
Amirli's release comes four days after the director of the independent Turan news agency, Mehman Aliyev, who was charged with tax evasion and abuse of powers, was released from pretrial detention and placed under house arrest.
Also on September 11, Azerbaijan's state-controlled APA news agency reported that 14 people who were among dozens convicted of calls to overthrow the government and inciting hatred in the so-called Nardaran case had been granted early release.
The same day, Aliyev pardoned Russian-Israeli blogger Aleksandr Lapshin, who was sentenced to three years in prison in July for traveling to the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh without Baku's permission.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Aliyev, who has been president of the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million since shortly before the death of his long-ruling father in 2003, is on RSF’s list of so-called "press freedom predators."
RSF says more than a dozen other journalists, bloggers, and media workers are “imprisoned in connection with the provision of news and information -- usually on trumped-up charges.”
Dozens of journalists have fled the country in recent years to escape the crackdown, according to RSF.