Azerbaijan Draws Fire over Bloggers’ Sentences

Press freedom advocates are condemning a decision by an Azerbaijani court on Wednesday to convict two bloggers on charges of hooliganism and causing bodily harm, in a case widely viewed as political retribution.

“This trial has been a sham from beginning to end and has concluded with outrageous and unjust sentences. The trial was orchestrated solely to censor and punish two politically committed bloggers who dared to criticize the authorities,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

In July, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade were involved in a violent confrontation with two men in a restaurant. When they went to the police to report the incident, they were instead detained and charged themselves.

Milli runs an online video blog known as ANTV. Hajizade is a video blogger and coordinator of the youth movement, OL! Both are known for their contributions to social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter on issues such as education, corruption and governance. In the weeks prior to their arrests, the two had posted satirical video sketches online that criticized government policies.

“Police entrapment such as provoking a fight has become a tool for silencing critical journalists and writers in Azerbaijan,” said Nina Ognianova, the Committee to Protect Journalists coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, in a press release after the verdict.

During the trial, the judge ignored procedural illegalities, inconsistent testimonies of prosecution witnesses and refused to consider defense evidence. The judge sentenced Milli to two-and-a-half years in prison, and Hajizade to two years.

Azerbaijan is regularly attacked by the rights community for its questionable record on free speech. Authorities banned foreign broadcasts in 2008, and dozens of journalists have been jailed in recent years under laws that treat libel as a criminal offence. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has also been widely condemned following a referendum earlier this year to lift presidential term limits.

Amnesty International has adopted Milli and Hajizade as prisoners of conscience. European Union and American officials have also condemned the trial as illegal, calling for the bloggers release.