Tofig Yagublu, a newspaper columnist and deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, along with Republican Alternative Party founder Ilgar Mammedov were arrested Feb. 4 in connection with Jan. 23 protests in Ismayilli, 90 miles northwest of the capital Baku.
The pair was being held for two months in pretrial detention after a request for their release was denied Friday by the Baku Court of Appeal, the Azerbaijan Press Agency reported.
That brought a statement of concern Saturday from the offices of Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and Stefan Fule, European commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy.
A statement issued by representatives for the EU leaders urged Azerbaijan to "ensure a speedy, fair, transparent and independent investigation of the charges" faced by Yagublu and Mammedov and called for authorities to "refrain from further hindering journalists and political activists who seek to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms."
The pair was charged with calling for civil disobedience a day after the protests in Ismayilli, during which demonstrators demanded the resignation of the district's governor while setting fire to his residence, cars and a local motel, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Tear gas and water cannons were used to break up the protest. Ismayilli district authorities say they arrested 14 people in connection with the incident. A solidarity rally held in Baku three days after the Ismayilli violence resulted in about 80 more arrests.
Yagublu and Mammedov, who is expected to run for president next year, are facing charges including "organizing or actively participating in the actions causing violation of public order" as well as "using force or resisting to the government representative" in connection with the demonstration, the Azerbaijan news agency said.
The pair could face up to three years in prison along with hefty fines if found guilty.
Ashton and Fule called on Azerbaijan "to review urgently" charges leveled against attendees at the Jan. 26 "peaceful solidarity demonstration" in Baku and to "ensure that existing allegations of ill treatment of detainees participating in that demonstration and the January Ismayilli protests are credibly investigated and due detention conditions are guaranteed for those under arrest."
Human Rights Watch said it suspects Baku is using the Ismayilli protests as a pretext to crack down on political opposition.
The group said Yagublu and Mammedov traveled to the region a day after the violence to investigate what had happened, only to be arrested for allegedly urging residents to resist police and block traffic "in order to violate socio-economic stability."
"To dispel concerns that the charges against Mammadov and Yagublu are spurious and politically motivated, the authorities should promptly disclose any credible evidence they have of activities the men engaged in that would constitute criminal wrongdoing," Human Rights Watch said.
Members of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly who monitor Azerbaijan's compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights also denounced the Baku arrests as well as the detentions of Yagublu and Mammedov.
Spain's Pedro Agramunt and Joseph Debono Grech of Malta, monitoring co-rapporteurs on Azerbaijan, said the arrests "give rise to justified doubts and legitimate concerns. We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to use all available legal tools to release these arrested opposition politicians."