BAKU — Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Azerbaijan of abusing coronavirus restrictions to arrest government critics.

The rights watchdog said on April 16 that in less than a month at least six opposition activists and a pro-opposition journalist were sentenced to detention of up to 30 days on “spurious charges” that included breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders.

Most of them had criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or authorities’ failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic, it added.

The arrests “fall squarely within a longstanding pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW.

He urged authorities to “stop using a public health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech.”

The government has put in place a series of social-distancing measures to combat the outbreak, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Last month, parliament passed legal amendments providing for fines of up to 200 manat ($120) or detention of up to 30 days for violating the lockdown regime.

In March, 154 people were jailed and thousands were fined for violating the restrictions, according to the Interior Ministry.

Critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev say authorities frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates without grounds.

Azerbaijan has recorded a total of 1,373 coronavirus cases, with 18 deaths. Authorities said 590 patients had recovered.

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