By Lada Evgrashina
BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan arrested a prominent Azeri journalist and human rights activist on Friday on suspicion of drug possession in a case a rights watchdog said is politically motivated.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said police seized five grams of heroin from Khilal Mamedov, the editor-in-chief of a popular newspaper in Azerbaijan's southern Talysh region, and found another 30 grams at his house.
"His arrest is not connected to his professional activity," ministry spokesman Elshan Zahidov told reporters.
Mamedov faces between three to 12 years in imprisonment if he is found guilty of drug possession.
Azerbaijan's Talysh region borders Iran and is a home to a few thousand Talyshs, who speak their own language. The region tried to rebel against Baku's rule and declare independence in 1993, but its separatist movement was suppressed by authorities.
Azeri human rights think-tank the Institute for Peace and Democracy called for Mamedov's immediate release, saying his arrest was "an example of pressure on human rights activists".
"Mamedov is a very respected figure among the Talysh minority and Baku officialdom does not like such people," the think-tank's director Leila Yunus said.
"His arrest is a direct pressure on national minorities in Azerbaijan."
The previous editor at Mamedov's newspaper, the Tolishi Sado (Voice of Talysh), was jailed in 2008 for 10 years on charges of spying for Iran. He died of illness in prison in 2010.
Mamedov was one of the authors of a popular Youtube song "Who are you? Come on, goodbye?" that went viral in Russia, becoming popular among opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet state sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, is governed by strongman leader Ilham Aliyev, whose rule is often lambasted by international rights groups for curbing public dissent.
Aliyev, whose government maintains the nation of 9 million enjoys freedom of speech and a vibrant opposition, signed a decree on Friday granting amnesty to 64 prisoners, including nine activists detained for their role in protests this spring.
Under pressure from the West, the Caspian Sea state which is a key energy supplier to Europe and a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, also released several opposition bloggers and reporters in recent months.
(Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Jon Hemming)
Do Conservatives Need a “Heart”? (Author Interview: Arthur Brooks, AEI President) | Christopher N. Malagisi
Terror Concerns: Obama Administration Extends Protected Status Deadline For New Somali Refugees | Katie Pavlich