Saturday, September 5, 2009

Azerbaijani Bloggers Jailed

Two Azerbaijani bloggers (Adnan Hajizade, 26, and Emin Milli, 29) have been arrested and face up to five years in jail for uploading a video of one of the bloggers in an oversized grey suit giving a press conference. The video shows the donkey at the head of a table surrounded by journalists. The video is a parody of one of Azerbaijan's notorious "news-conferences" that act as propaganda pulpits for the government. This is the latest example of the Internet crackdown that has been seen across the ex-Soviet state.

The two youths have been officially charged under hooliganism laws, and the police say that the pair were also involved in a "scuffle at a restaurant". Independent reports have indicated, however, that the "scuffle" is simply an excuse to hold the pair under a two-month pre-trial detention order. There is no question that it is a political arrest. Their trial is scheduled to begin in Baku on September 4.

Speaking to the BBC, Elsa Vidal - Europe desk officer with Reporters Without Borders - said that press freedoms in Azerbaijan were almost non-existent, making it "one of the black spots of the former USSR. The situation is still severe and local public servants enjoy virtual immunity from an investigation from the press when they try and expose corruption. There are no grounds for the bloggers to be prosecuted. They should be released and all accusations should be dropped. The authorities have more to lose in jailing the bloggers than in freeing them, but who knows what will actually be said at the trial?" she added.

The UN Human Rights Committee has also raised similar concerns, saying there are "extensive limitations to the right to freedom of expression in Azerbaijan". A statement from the lawyer for Hajizade and Milli says that it was them who were attacked by two men and when they went to a local police station to file a complaint they were arrested on hooliganism charges. "This incident is definitely politically motivated. My clients did not beat anybody, quite the opposite," said the lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov.

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 and central to a growing movement of young people who are using the Internet to criticise the Azerbaijan government. The main focus for these movements is Social Media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Much of the criticism toward the government lately, has surrounded a new law in Kazakhstan that allows the closing of a website for three months if it is deemed to have intentionally published illegal information.

The arrests have gained a large amount of online and offline coverage and many of Hajizade and Milli's supporters have taken to creating even more online content through both blogs and Social Networking sites; including a Facebook Page with over 900 supporters and an online video petition.

In response to the growing support, a senior advisor to President Ilham Aliyev, Ali Hasanov, has said "People are not arrested in Azerbaijan because of political activity.... There was a scuffle between some young people and some of them were injured". He added, "Law-enforcement agencies are investigating the case and will give an impartial assessment".

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