Azerbaijan sentences youth activist to 10 years in prison

Baku (AFP) - Azerbaijan on Tuesday sentenced a pro-democracy activist to 10 years in prison as the ex-Soviet state faces growing criticism over its crackdown on dissent.

A Baku court found Giyas Ibrahimov, a 21-year-old activist who belongs to the NIDA pro-democracy youth group, guilty of drug trafficking.

Human rights activists dismissed the charges as politically motivated, his lawyer Elchin Sadykhov told AFP.

Ibrahimov and fellow activist Bayram Mammadov were arrested in May for painting anti-government graffiti on a monument in the capital Baku to late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, the father of current President Ilham Aliyev.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on authorities to "immediately free" the activists and investigate allegations that they were mistreated in police custody.

Activists have raised concerns over Azerbaijan's dire human rights record, with HRW in May criticising the country for "cracking down on human rights activists and critical journalists".

Last month the population overwhelmingly backed constitutional changes extending President Ilham Aliyev's grip on power in a referendum denounced by opposition and rights groups as a ploy to cement the family's dynastic rule.

Aliyev, 54, has led the country since his father died after a decade in power in 2003.