By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - Europe's main security and rights watchdog urged Azerbaijan on Monday to stop an intensifying crackdown on independent media and human rights activists.
Rights advocates accuse veteran President Ilham Aliyev's government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies. The West has actively courted the energy-rich ex-Soviet republic as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas.
"Practically all independent media representatives and media NGOs have been purposefully persecuted under various, often unfounded and disturbing charges," Dunja Mijatovic, media representative of the 57-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said in a statement.
She spoke after Azeri blogger Mehman Huseynov was detained at Baku international airport earlier in the day while trying to depart for Georgia to attend the 11th South Caucasus Media Conference on the invitation of the OSCE.
Huseynov, who works at the Baku-based Azeri Institute Of Reporters' Liberty and Safety, was released after several hours of questioning. In 2012 he was hit with a three-year travel ban after being convicted of resisting and insulting police.
Mijatovic said Khadija Ismailova, a journalist with Radio Azadliq who was also invited to the Tbilisi conference, could not attend it due to earlier travel restrictions imposed on her.
"I repeat my call on the authorities in Azerbaijan to end this hostile attitude to free media," Mijatovic said.
Several other human rights defenders were sentenced to varying prison terms earlier this year on charges included tax evasion, illegal business activity and hooliganism. Defense lawyers called the charges unfounded and politically motivated.
Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim former Soviet republic, says its 9 million citizens enjoy full freedom of speech and a lively opposition press. Baku currently chairs the Council of Europe's ministerial committee.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)