Azerbaijan jails two opposition bloggers
BAKU – Agence France-Presse
Azerbaijan on Wednesday jailed two bloggers after they posted a satirical Internet video of a donkey giving a press conference, in a ruling rights groups say is aimed at silencing independent new media.
Adnan Hajizade, 26, and Emin Milli, 30, were sentenced on hooliganism charges to two years and two-and-a-half years in prison, respectively, over a scuffle at a restaurant in the capital Baku, their lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov, told AFP. The bloggers, who had been held in jail since their arrests in July, say they were attacked and arrested for political reasons because of their online criticism of authorities in Azerbaijan, an 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."
Authorities have said the charges are unrelated to the bloggers' criticism of the government, but rights groups and analysts say they were aimed at sending a signal 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, the 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 meant as a warning to Azerbaijan's increasingly active youth groups ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 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, the co-founder of the OL [To Be] youth movement, and Milli, a co-founder of online television channel AN Network, are both Western-educated children of opposition activists who were at the center of a growing circle of young people using the Internet to criticize 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 channels 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 repeatedly accused Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim republic on the Caspian Sea, of curbing free speech and limiting media freedoms. Dozens of journalists have been jailed in recent years under laws that make libel a criminal offence, unlike a civil issue as in many Western countries.
Azerbaijan last year also imposed a ban on foreign broadcasts that effectively shut down local-language broadcasts of the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Liberty, which many saw as some of the country's only sources of independent news. European Union representatives, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the U.N. Human Rights Committee all raised concerns about the arrests of the two bloggers