TBILISI (Reuters) - Human rights groups criticised Azerbaijan on Wednesday for legislation that will make defamation over the Internet a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment ahead of a presidential election in the tightly controlled nation.
Amnesty International and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) accused the oil-producing former Soviet state of tightening curbs on free expression before October's vote.
Aliyev is expected to win a new term despite opposition from Azeris tired of his rule over the mostly Muslim nation of 9 million on the Caspian Sea.
Inspired in part by the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, some opponents have used social media to organise street protests, many of which are swiftly dispersed.
Parliament on Tuesday passed amendments imposing fines of up to 1,000 manats and prison terms of up to three years for anyone convicted of online defamation. Existing law does not cover defamation committed on the Internet.
The legislation is expected to be signed by President Ilham Aliyev, who has been accused by rights groups of suppressing dissent, curtailing freedoms and clamping down on media since he succeeded his father in 2003.
"The new legislation constitutes a further attack of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan," Amnesty International said in a statement. "The Azeri authorities must not use the upcoming presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices."
The OSCE - Europe's main human rights and security organisation, of which Azerbaijan is a member - said it had warned the government over the bill.
"Yesterday's amendments drive Azerbaijan even further away from the OSCE's recommendations to decriminalise defamation," OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said.
She also condemned a ruling by an appeals court in the capital, Baku, upholding a nine-year prison sentence against Avaz Zeynally, a newspaper editor convicted of extortion.
Zeynally says the charge is a baseless government reprisal for a story in the daily Khural criticising senior officials.
Sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan is an energy supplier to Europe and a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan - a role that rights groups say has cushioned the country from Western criticism of its democracy record.
Aliyev's government says Azerbaijan has full freedom of speech and a thriving opposition press.
(Additional reporting by Lada Evgrashina in Baku; Editing by Alison Williams)