By Nailia Bagirova
BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan on Wednesday released Leyla Yunus, a leading rights activist in the former Soviet republic, whose imprisonment was decried by critics as politically motivated.
Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, had been held in detention since July 2014. She was sentenced to 8-1/2 years in jail in August this year.
Her husband Arif Yunus, who was sentenced to seven years, was released from prison on Nov. 12. They were convicted of treason, espionage and tax evasion in a case that human rights groups say was part of a campaign to muzzle dissent.
Critics of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev accuse him and his government of cracking down on dissent in the oil-producing country to block the rise of any political opposition. He denies this.
Despite the charges by rights organizations, Western countries tread a fine diplomatic line in dealings with Baku, which they see as an alternative to Russia as a source of oil and gas for Europe.
A court of appeals on Wednesday changed the sentences of both Leyla and Arif Yunus to suspended with a 5-year probation period.
Human rights groups have highlighted health issues the two activists have been suffering from.
Amnesty International regarded the Yunuses as prisoners of conscience and said their case was one of several in which rights activists and journalists had been jailed this year.
In a separate case, a court in Azerbaijan on Wednesday imprisoned Fuad Gakhramanly, a deputy head of opposition Popular Front, for three months of pre-trial detention on charges of stirring social, racial and religious strife.
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Tom Heneghan)