By Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze

BAKU (Reuters) - Amnesty International said on Monday it considered Rasul Jafarov, a prominent human rights activist in Azerbaijan, who had been arrested last week, a prisoner of conscience.

Rasul Jafarov, a founder of the Baku-based Human Rights Club (HRC) in Azerbaijan, was arrested on Saturday and sentenced to three months pre-trial detention on charges of tax evasion, illegal business and abuse of authority in a case critics say highlights a government crackdown on dissent in the former Soviet republic.

Mainly Muslim Azerbaijan has been governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003 and courted by the West because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.

Rights groups accuse the government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies.

"Rasul Jafarov ... has been deprived of freedom in connection with his attempts to exercise his right to freedom of expression and association," Amnesty International said in a statement.

The human rights watchdog said that restrictions for operation of pro-democracy nongovernmental organisations (NGO) in Azerbaijan left their leaders with no choice but to operate outside the strict legal framework, which was later used by the authorities as a pretext for their criminal prosecution.

"Jafarov is the fifth person to be prosecuted on these grounds in the last four months. Amnesty International considers Rasul Jafarov to be a prisoner of conscience."

Azerbaijan imposed restrictions on civil society in 2009 that include banning NGOs from receiving more than 50 percent funding from abroad, requiring them to register with the state, and prohibiting activities of foreign NGOs unless based on a "relevant international agreement."

Jafarov's arrest follows a detention of another prominent human rights activist and the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy Leyla Yunus last week on suspicion of treason, espionage and tax evasion.

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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