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Azerbaijan condemned over jail terms for bloggers

BAKU — An Azerbaijan court on Wednesday jailed two bloggers who posted a satirical Internet video of a donkey giving a press conference, in a ruling rights groups say is aimed at silencing independent media.
Adnan Hajizade, 26, and Emin Milli, 30, were found guilty of hooliganism over a scuffle at a restaurant in Baku, their lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov, told AFP. Hajizade was jailed for two years and Milli two-and-a-half years.
The bloggers, who had been in jail since their arrests in July, say they were targeted for political reasons because of their online criticism of authorities in the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic.
"This sentence is unjust and illegal," Ashurov said. "We plan to appeal the conviction and if we find no justice in Azerbaijan's judicial system, we will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg."
European security watchdog the OSCE said the jail terms confirmed the country's status as "the pre-eminent jailer of journalists" in the OSCE region.
Authorities have said the charges are unrelated to the bloggers' criticism of the government.
The deputy head of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Ali Akhmedov, told journalists the court made its decision independently. "If the court has taken such a decision... this means the court had a basis for it. We must respect the decision taken by the court," he said.
Human rights groups and some analysts said the ruling was intended as a warning to anti-government activists using the Internet.
"The court's ruling is political. It is aimed at intimidating new media on the Internet and preventing the distribution of alternative opinions," said Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety.
Azerbaijan is ruled by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003. A referendum earlier this year lifted term limits on the presidency, paving the way, according to opposition groups, for Aliyev to become president for life.
Political analyst Ilgar Mamedov said the trial was also a warning to youth groups ahead of parliamentary elections due next year.
"The authorities are trying to intimidate youth especially in advance of the 2010 parliamentary elections," he said. "Social youth networks are becoming more and more popular and the authorities are afraid that youth activists will support a new generation of younger politicians."
Hajizade, co-founder of the OL (To Be) youth movement, and Milli, co-founder of online television channel AN Network, are both Western-educated children of opposition activists at the centre of a growing circle of young people using the Internet to criticise Azerbaijan's authorities.
Using sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the activists posted news updates, critical essays and satirical videos, offering an alternative to Azerbaijan's mainstream television and newspapers, which critics allege are under strict government control.
They were arrested shortly after posting the donkey video, which lampooned Azerbaijan's docile press and statements by government officials.
Western governments and rights groups have accused Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim republic on the Caspian Sea, of curbing free speech.
A World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) delegation that went to Baku in September said there was a "pervasive climate of intimidation and fear" among journalists in Azerbaijan.
Dozens of journalists have been jailed in recent years under laws that make libel a criminal offence, rather than a civil matter, as in many Western countries.
Azerbaijan last year banned foreign broadcasts, effectively ending local-language broadcasts by the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Liberty.
European Union representatives, the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders and the UN Human Rights Committee all raised concerns about the arrests of the bloggers.
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