Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has pardoned 87 people including journalists and rights activists as part of a new year amnesty.
The opposition claims their cases demonstrate shrinking political freedoms in the country.
Rights groups accuse Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, of clamping down on dissent and rigging elections.
They say, however, that Azerbijan’s role as energy supplier to Europe and transit route for US troops to Afghanistan has cushioned him from strong western criticism of its record on democracy.
One of those set free was Anar Bayramli who was a reporter with Iran’s Sahar TV and the Fars news agency. He was arrested in February 2012 for possession of a small amount of heroin and sentenced to two years in prison in June.
He said “I was pardoned today. I will rest a little and then will start working as a journalist again. Most likely I will return to my old job and position. So arrests, threats and pressure cannot stop us from our work.”
The government says the former Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, which has a population of around nine-million people, enjoys full freedom of the press.