Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev (right) welcomes his French counterpart Francois Hollande at the presidential palace in Baku yesterday. Image Credit: AFP

Baku: French President Francois Hollande on Saturday raised rights abuses with ex-Soviet Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev at talks focused on its simmering dispute with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh.

“We always talk about this,” Hollande told journalists in Baku, referring to Azerbaijan’s poor rights record, before returning to Paris following his short visit.

Rights groups accuse the government of oil-rich Azerbaijan of using spurious charges to jail its critics and stepping up a campaign to stifle opposition since Aliyev’s election to a third term in 2013.

Human Rights Watch appealed to Hollande in an open letter a few days earlier to raise the rights situation with Aliyev.

France is particularly concerned at the plight of award-winning activist Leyla Yunus who has been held in prison since last summer on treason, tax evasion and fraud charges despite serious health problems.

Hollande met Yunus in Baku in 2014 and decorated her with the Legion d’honneur.

Yunus heads one of the Azerbaijan’s leading rights groups, the Institute for Peace and Democracy.

She was placed in pretrial detention last summer, accused of spying for arch-enemy Armenia.

Her husband Arif, a respected political analyst, has also been jailed and charged with treason and tax fraud.

Yunus has worked with Armenian activists calling for a peaceful resolution to a decades-long conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region, controlled by Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian separatists since a bloody war in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan accuses Yunus of attempting to spread “propaganda” calling for the recognition of Nagorny Karabakh’s authorities.

Hollande’s discussions with Aliyev concentrated on the dispute over Nagorny Karabakh. The French leader had met Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier at Armenia’s genocide commemorations.