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By Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze

BAKU (Reuters) - A prominent human rights activist in Azerbaijan has been detained on suspicion of treason, espionage and tax evasion in a case critics say highlights a government crackdown on dissent in the former Soviet republic.

Leyla Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, was arrested on Wednesday on her way to a news conference in the capital Baku. The Azeri court ordered her detained for three months' pre-trial detention.

Her husband Arif Yunus, also a human rights activist, was briefly detained while visiting her in the prosecutor's office. The court imposed travel restrictions on him.

The prosecutors' office said on Thursday the couple were accused of having links to the special forces of neighbouring Armenia and being involved in recruiting Azeri citizens in espionage activities.

A military conflict between ethnic Azeris and Armenians erupted in 1991 over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave within Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population, after Armenian-backed forces seized the area and seven surrounding Azeri districts.

Despite a ceasefire that was brokered in 1994, international efforts to reach a permanent settlement have failed.

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.

Amnesty International said the treason charges against Leyla and Arif Yunus were "trumped up and were part of a process of ongoing harassment against them".

"Leyla Yunus is yet another independent voice in Azerbaijan who, for a long time, the government has tried to silence through threats and intimidation," said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International's researcher on Azerbaijan.

Yunus was first detained and questioned in April, while her office was searched. She was a witness in a case against a prominent Azeri journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, whom prosecutors charged with espionage.

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Alison Williams)

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