(New York) - The Azerbaijani government should release two bloggers who have been detained since July 2009 as the result of a staged fight designed to frame them, Human Rights Watch said today. The bloggers, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, lost their appeal against their conviction today.
In a hearing that lasted two and a half hours, the Baku Appeal Court upheld the trial court's decision in November, convicting Milli and Hajizade of hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm. The Appeal Court did not examine the two bloggers' central contention, that the attack that led to their conviction had been deliberately staged to frame them, even though multiple witnesses would corroborate their claim.
"Today's ruling is yet another setback for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The case is blatantly part of a pattern of prosecutions in which the authorities have brought trumped-up charges against outspoken journalists and activists in Azerbaijan."
Milli was sentenced to two years in prison and Hajizade to two and a half years. Milli is a blogger for an online television site and a coordinator of exchange student alumni. Hajizade is a video blogger. Both 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, 2009, they had been talking about 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 and charged them with hooliganism. The alleged attackers were set free. Milli and Hajizade were not permitted access to their lawyers until late on the following day.
The restaurant fight appears to have been staged to provide grounds for a bogus case against the two bloggers, Human Rights Watch said.
The trial, held by the Sabail District Court, was closed to media due to unspecified concerns about the need for witness protection. The prosecution claimed that Milli and Hajizade started the fight, but several witnesses testified that Milli and Hajizade had been attacked.
Journalists and media representatives in Azerbaijan 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. At least three journalists are currently behind bars on spurious criminal charges.
"The continued imprisonment of Milli and Hajizade reflects growing government hostility toward freedom of expression," Gogia said. "The government has a chance to prove the contrary, by setting them free."