Azerbaijan extends detention of opposition leaders

A court in Azerbaijan on Wednesday extended the pre-trial detention of two prominent opposition leaders accused of fomenting rare anti-government riots in the tightly-controlled former Soviet state, opposition activists said.

Ilgar Mammadov -- who heads the Republican Alternative (REAL) movement -- and Tofig Yagublu -- deputy head of opposition group Musavat -- were handed an additional three months in jail in closed court hearings in Baku where they are awaiting trial on charges of causing mass disorder and resisting state officials.

"The prosecution said that investigations were continuing and for that reason it was necessary to extend the term of detention," REAL executive secretary Natig Cafarli told AFP, in reference to Mammadov.

The two activists were arrested in early February on accusations that they organised an outbreak of rioting in the provincial town of Ismayilli in January that saw police use rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of protestors.

Azerbaijan's weakened opposition denied any role in the rampage in which angry residents torched buildings and cars following a minor car crash and fight allegedly involving a relative of the local governor.

The Amnesty International rights watchdog has called the charges against Yagublu and Mammadov -- who wants to run in presidential elections later this year -- "politically motivated".

The men face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty, Amnesty said.

Any display of public discontent and political dissent usually meets a tough government reaction in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich state on the Caspian sea ruled by strongman President Ilham Aliyev.

A spate of further protests in recent months including one over alleged hazing in the army has been ruthlessly suppressed by police and scores of activists have been detained.

Azerbaijan's government has long been accused of stifling free speech, jailing opponents and crushing dissent.

Aliyev, who has been in power since succeeding his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss as president in 2003, faces presidential elections in October, in a vote that he looks certain to win.