(Berlin) – A court in Azerbaijan on April 22, 2015, sentenced Intigam Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s leading human rights lawyer, to seven years and six months in prison on bogus charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release Aliyev, 52, and vacate his politically motivated conviction.

Aliyev’s conviction comes 51 days before Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, starting June 12. Azerbaijan’s international partners should call for the immediate release of Aliyev and other wrongfully imprisoned activists and make clear they will not send high-level delegations to the opening of the games unless these prisoners are freed and the government’s crackdown on independent voices ends.

“Today is a disastrous day for rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Intigam Aliyev is Azerbaijan’s pioneer in human rights litigation. If allowed to stand, this outrageous conviction would mean that for years to come victims of human rights abuse in Azerbaijan have lost one of their strongest advocates.”

Baku’s Grave Crimes Court convicted Aliyev on politically motivated charges of tax evasion, illegal business activities, embezzlement, and abuse of authority. On April 16, 2015, the same court sentenced Rasul Jafarov, another human rights defender, to six-and-a-half years on the same charges.

Aliyev is a lawyer and chair of the Legal Education Society, which litigated human rights cases in domestic courts. He was one of the first Azerbaijani lawyers to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights and has also trained Azerbaijan’s new generation of human rights lawyers. In August 2014, authorities confiscated the group’s computers and documents and sealed the office.

When Azerbaijani authorities arrested Aliyev in August, a journalist asked him what he was accused of. He responded calmly: “Those who defend human rights and political prisoners and report on election fraud are considered criminals in this country. [So,] I am one of those criminals.”

Aliyev is also among several human rights defenders – including Jafarov, Leyla Yunus, and a leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova – who had been compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan, and pressing for their release. Like Aliyev and Jafarov, Yunus, Ismayilova, and others involved in the effort are also behind bars, awaiting trials on various trumped-up charges.

In his closing statement to the court, Aliyev said: “Arrests can take away our freedom, but not our desire for freedom. Our arrest continues our struggle for freedom.”

The charges against Aliyev stem in part from allegations that he did not register grants his organization received with the Justice Ministry. One of Aliyev's lawyers said that Aliyev had in fact registered the grants, which had been reflected in a list of registered grants posted on the ministry’s website. The entry was deleted, however. During a March 17 hearing in the case, the lawyer presented to court notarized screenshots of the registration information on the Justice Ministry’s website cached in a Google search engine.

In recent months Azerbaijani authorities have imposed a new series of extremely restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations, requiring government licensing of foreign donor organizations and government approval of each grant awarded. Authorities have also frozen bank accounts of over 50 groups, and in some cases accounts of their staff members.

In March, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, filed a submission to the European Court of Human Rights on Aliyev’s case, in which he said that the case “provides a disturbing illustration of this pattern of reprisals against those who co-operate with international institutions, including the Council of Europe, to address human rights shortcomings in Azerbaijan.” He further noted that Aliyev's arrest is part of “a clear pattern of repression in Azerbaijan against those expressing dissent or criticism of the authorities.”

“It’s patently obvious that the charges against Aliyev are politically motivated,” Gogia said. “And it’s obvious what Azerbaijan’s international partners should do to get the government to stop this mockery of justice. What’s not obvious is will they do it?”