(New York) - The criminal convictions of two young activist bloggers are a step backward for free expression in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Azerbaijani government to ensure that the appeal against their conviction fully examines whether the incident for which they were convicted was staged to frame them.
On November 11, 2009 the Sabail District Court of Baku convicted Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade of hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm, sentencing them to two and a half years and two years in prison respectively. Milli is a blogger for an online television site and a coordinator of exchange student alumni. Hajizade is a video blogger. They were charged in relation to an incident in July in which they say they were attacked.
"There is a longstanding pattern of Azerbaijani officials filing trumped-up charges against journalists to punish them for critical or satirical comment," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The case against Milli and Hajizade falls squarely in that pattern."
Milli and Hajizade had satirized the government in blog postings, including on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, in the weeks preceding the attack.
The defendants allege that on July 8, they had been discussing their youth movement in a Baku restaurant when two strangers approached them, demanded that they stop discussing such matters, and attacked and injured them. That evening, Milli and Hajizade went to the police station, filed reports about the attack, and requested medical assistance.
Instead of providing them with medical assistance, the police interrogated the youths for five hours without their lawyers, charged them with hooliganism, and set their alleged attackers free. Milli and Hajizade were not permitted access to their lawyers until late on the following day.
The restaurant fight appeared to have been staged to provide grounds for a bogus case against the two bloggers, Human Rights Watch said. The convictions come amid deteriorating media freedoms in Azerbaijan. Journalists and media representatives have been harassed, threatened, or attacked for their professional activities, and defamation and other criminal charges have been used to prosecute opposition and independent journalists. Five journalists are behind bars in the country on spurious criminal charges.
The trial of the two young bloggers began on September 4. Authorities closed it to the media, citing unspecified concerns about the need for witness protection. The prosecution claimed that Milli and Hajizade started the fight. Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, a Baku-based media rights organization that monitored the trial, told Human Rights Watch that several people who had been at the restaurant testified that Milli and Hajizade had been attacked.
Milli and Adnan, who have been in prison since July 8, plan to appeal the verdict.
"The imprisonment of Milli and Adnan sends a chilling message to bloggers and any sharp government critic in Azerbaijan," Gogia said. "It reflects growing government hostility towards the freedom of expression."