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Azerbaijan extends detention of opposition leader


A court in Azerbaijan on Tuesday extended the pre-trial detention of a prominent opposition leader accused of fomenting rare anti-government riots in the tightly-controlled former Soviet state, his lawyer said.

Tofig Yagublu -- deputy head of opposition group Musavat -- was handed almost four additional months in jail in closed court hearings in Baku where he is awaiting trial on charges of causing mass disorder and resisting state officials.

Prosecutors were granted the extension until December 4 after citing the "complexity of the criminal investigation and the need for more time," said his lawyer Nemat Kerimli.

The activist was arrested in early February accused of helping organise an outbreak of rioting in the provincial town of Ismayilli in January that saw police use rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of protestors.

Another prominent opposition figure, Ilgar Mammadov -- who heads the Republican Alternative (REAL) movement -- was detained along with Yagublu on similar charges and also remains in detention.

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.

Any display of public discontent and political dissent usually meets a tough government reaction in Azerbaijan, which is gearing up to a presidential election in October.

Strongman President Ilham Aliyev took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss.

He looks certain to win the poll despite a coalition of groups choosing Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov as its candidate.

Human rights activists have accused authorities in the oil-rich state of locking up scores of opponents in a bid to stifle opposition and strangle criticism in the run-up to the election.

Amnesty International has called the charges against Yagublu and Mammadov -- who had previously said he wanted to run for president -- "politically motivated".

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