Azerbaijan has charged a newspaper editor and rights activist with treason for working for neighbour Iran's spy services, officials said Wednesday, as tensions with the Islamic republic simmer.
The interior ministry said Hilal Mamedov, editor of Talyshi Sado (Voice of the Talysh), a newspaper for the country's Talysh ethnic minority, was using journalism as a cover to "secretly cooperate with the Iranian secret services".
"For harmful activities against the sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, he periodically received material remuneration," the interior ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said that Mamedov had worked for Iranian intelligence since 1992 and had supplied "materials to be used against Azerbaijan" when instructed.
If convicted of treason, the journalist could face life imprisonment in the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet state.
Mamedov was originally arrested last month on suspicion of heroin possession before new charges were announced, his lawyer said.
"The investigators have brought new charges based on two statutes -- high treason and the incitement of ethnic, religious and racial hatred," lawyer Anar Gasimli told AFP.
"Hilal Mamedov denies all the charges," he said.
After Mamedov's initial arrest, the lawyer said that the journalist believed the case was connected with his "social, political and human rights activities", although the interior ministry has denied this.
Mamedov also believes his arrest was linked to his public criticism of the authorities while ex-Soviet Azerbaijan was holding the high-profile Eurovision song contest in May, the lawyer said.
A former editor of the Talyshi Sado newspaper, Novruzali Mamedov, was convicted of treason in 2008 for allegedly spying for Iran, and died in jail a year later.
The newspaper is published in Talysh, a Persian-related language spoken by minorities in Azerbaijan and Iran.
Tensions between the Islamic republic and mainly Muslim but officially secular Azerbaijan have grown in recent months.
Azerbaijan has accused Iran of sponsoring Islamic radicals on its territory and arrested a series of suspected attack plotters with alleged links to Tehran.
The Islamic republic meanwhile has been angered by Baku's friendly links with Israel and the United States.
International rights groups have often accused the Azerbaijani authorities led by strongman President Ilham Aliyev of persecuting journalists and muzzling dissent, although his government insists that the country's media are free.