US deputy assistant secretary of state Matthew Bryza has called for the resolution of the case of bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada, who were jailed in July for “hooliganism” after they published a satirical video online.
Bryza’s statement, on a recent visit to Azerbaijan, followed the announcement on 11 August that the pair’s complaint against the interior ministry, the prosecutor’s office and the Baku police had been rejected. Milli and Hajizada accused authorities of failing to honour their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Milli and Hajizada were sentenced to two months’ pre-trial detention after the authorities accused them of “hooliganism”, a decision that was upheld in a closed hearing on 20 July. The trial is due to be held in September. Their lawyers are planning to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The government was said to be angered by the online video, which poked fun at a local news story about government authorities importing donkeys from Germany. In the video, Adnan Hajizada is wearing a donkey suit and addressing journalists in a mock news conference. The video was produced and posted online by both Hajizada and Milli.
According to witness testimonies, Milli and Hajizada were having dinner in a Baku cafe on 8 July when they were assaulted. During the attack, the assailants reportedly accused both Milli and Hajizada of “criticising the government”, witnesses said. Despite appealing to police as victims of an attack, Milli and Hajizada were arrested, whereas the assailants were freed. Both were denied access to their lawyers and medical care.
The bloggers belong to a group of youth activists in the country. Milli and Hajizada, who both contribute to the Ol Youth Movement, have used YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, video blogs and Internet television as part of their campaign to mobilise Azerbaijani youth in non-violent struggle against the ruling regime.
The authorities were quick to dispel claims that the arrests were politically motivated. “Unfortunately, these sorts of events are often politicised…and later used against Azerbaijani statehood,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the socio-political department of the presidential administration. Erkin Gadirli, a well-known lawyer, believes that the activists are being punished for criticising the government.
Supporters of the detained bloggers argue that they did not engage in politics, but tried to “enlighten youth, promote modern education and create alternative platforms for discussion”. Elnura Jivazadeh, a colleague of Milli, claims that the bloggers “have never supported violence”.
The Azerbaijani government has effectively used similar criminal charges to stifle dissenting voices in the past. Ganimat Zahid, chief editor of opposition daily Azadliq, was initially detained in 2007 on “hooliganism” charges for two months, but the indictment was replaced with four years’ imprisonment in March 2008.
There has been an international outcry from human rights groups over the treatment of Milli and Hajizada. Amnesty International said the bloggers may have been put in jail just for “peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression” and must be freed “immediately and unconditionally”.
In response, Azerbaijani authorities have accused the embassies of several countries of “interfering in the country’s domestic affairs and transparency of the investigation”.
Some activists in Baku believe the arrest of Milli and Hajizada will have a chilling effect on the blogosphere in Azerbaijan. Milli and Hajizada’s blogs were said to have an online audience of over 10,000. The detention is designed to “intimidate the outspoken bloggers and those using Internet media tools for discussing politically sensitive issues”, says Fuad Hasanov of Baku-based Democracy Monitor (DeMo). “That could lead to self-censorship in online media.”
Civil society activists and journalists often face intimidation, violent attacks and politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan, which was ranked 150th out of 173 countries in the annual 2008 Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) press freedom index.
Free expression campaigning organisation Article 19 argues that the authorities in Azerbaijan “use criminal defamation laws and other seemingly unrelated criminal charges, such as ‘hooliganism’, to intimidate journalists and silence critical views”.
In a country where the authorities have firm control on both broadcast and print media, the use of the Internet has expanded in recent years as press freedom has lessened in the conventional media. All television channels remain under the tight control of the government, while the opposition newspapers with their limited circulation continue to be persecuted or face enormous financial pressure.
The authorities expanded a crackdown on independent media outlets in early 2009 by banning Radio Liberty, Voice of America and BBC radio transmission in local frequencies. These media outlets were the only ones offering a plurality of political views, dissenting voices and alternative information to the Azerbaijan public.
With opposition voices totally absent from public life, Internet communication tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are emerging as an alternative source of information in Azerbaijan.
Vugar Gojayev is a freelance journalist writing on developments in the South Caucasus.