Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, (Reuters).
Azerbaijan has consolidated authoritarian rule under President Ilham Aliyev by criminalising peaceful dissent and using excessive force against demonstrators, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
The damning report is a blow to the image of the energy-rich ex-Soviet republic which is hoping to present a glitzy show to the world when it hosts the Eurovision song contest next year for the first time in its history.
"In recent years, the government has consolidated its authoritarian rule and control of public life by adopting a wide range of laws and stepping up measures to harass and intimidate those, still a small minority, who dare to voice critical views," Amnesty International said in the new report.
The report accuses Azerbaijan of outlawing protests, using excessive force against people taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations, curbing media freedoms, harassing human rights defenders and pro-democracy bloggers, and shutting down civil rights groups.
"Peaceful protest has effectively been criminalised," the report said.
However the authorities in the mainly Muslim republic -- an important oil supplier to the West and a partner in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan -- insist that Aliyev supports free speech and is building genuine democracy.
Azerbaijan will become the focus of international attention in May next year when it hosts the Eurovision song contest, after its victory in the 2011 edition prompted national rejoicing.
Campaign groups are seeking to publicise alleged rights violations ahead of the pop music extravaganza through an online campaign entitled 'Sing for Democracy'.
However the Amnesty report highlights the cases of two opposition activists, Jabbar Savalan and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who were jailed for drugs offences and evading military service respectively after using Facebook to call for anti-government protests.
"New routes for exercising the right to freedom of expression, such as the internet and social media, have also come under siege," the report said.
The report focuses on the suppression of small unsanctioned protests in the capital Baku earlier this year, which were aimed at emulating the Arab Spring uprisings but were broken up by riot police, who made scores of arrests.
Amnesty said that it considered 17 of those convicted in cases connected to the spring demonstrations to be "prisoners of conscience".
The report said the arrests and convictions have "tightened the screws on the fledgling protest movement -- and sent out a strong message to those on the sidelines who might have thought of joining it".
Around 10 more youth activists were detained on Tuesday at a rally demanding freedom of assembly, according to opposition parties.
The authorities argue that Azerbaijan's oil and gas exports have created rising prosperity amid the political stability enforced by the administration led by Aliyev, who succeeded his father Heydar to office at presidential polls in 2003.
Ilham Aliyev won a further leadership election by a landslide in 2008, while a referendum the following year removed a two-term presidential limit, offering him the potential to lead the Caspian Sea state for life.