Azerbaijan opposition leaders jailed five, seven years

A court in Azerbaijan on Monday sentenced two leading opponents of strongman President Ilham Aliyev to seven and five years in jail in a decision US officials slammed as "politically motivated".

Opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) movement leader Ilgar Mammadov was sentenced to seven years imprisonment and Tofig Yagublu, deputy chairman of the anti-government Musavat party, was handed a five-year term over allegations they incited anti-government riots last year, a REAL spokesperson told AFP.

The activists -- described as "prisoners of conscience" by rights group Amnesty International -- were arrested in February 2013 on charges of being behind protests that turned into violent clashes in the town of Ismayilli the previous month.

Another eight defendants were also sentenced to jail terms ranging from two-and-a-half to seven years.

The opposition denied any role in the rampage, which ended with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters after residents set light to buildings and cars.

The US embassy in Azerbaijan said in a statement that it was "deeply disappointed" by the rulings and claimed there had been "significant irregularities" during the trial.

"Our observations lead to the conclusion that the verdicts were not based on the evidence and were politically motivated," the embassy statement said.

Any display of public discontent and political dissent usually meets a tough government response in Azerbaijan. Rights groups say the government of the energy-rich nation has been clamping own on opponents since Aliyev's re-election last year.

Aliyev secured a third term in October polls -- slammed as flawed by international observers -- extending his family's decades-long grip on power in the tightly controlled Caspian Sea nation.

The 51-year-old Aliyev took power in 2003 following a disputed election after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader.