Azerbaijani bloggers receive jail sentences

New York, November 11, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s prison sentences given to two video bloggers detained in July on fabricated charges of “hooliganism” and “inflicting minor bodily harm.” 

Judge Araz Huseynov with the Sabail District Court in Baku handed Emin Milli, 30, who runs an online video blog known as ANTV, a two and a half year jail term, and Adnan Hajizade, 26, a video blogger and coordinator of the Azerbaijani youth movement Ol!, a two-year prison sentence for allegedly harming two men in a restaurant, according to international press reports.

Milli and Hajizade had posted political and socially satirical video sketches that criticized government policies and social issues in the weeks prior to their initial arrest in July. They had interviewed local residents and posted their opinions online, sharing them through networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Among the issues discussed on their blogs were education, corruption, and the poor infrastructure in Azerbaijan.

Baku police detained Milli and Hajizade on July 8, after the bloggers reported that they had been physically attacked at a local restaurant. Milli and Hajizade were debating politics with friends when two unknown men interrupted their conversation and started a brawl, they said. When the bloggers went to report the incident, they were arrested for “hooliganism”; it turned out, the men who had attacked them had told the police that they had been the victims. The bloggers had been in custody since their initial detention. A second charge, “inflicting minor bodily harm,” was added later on.

Both domestic and international rights groups have condemned the arrest of Milli and Hajizade as staged by authorities in retaliation for their blogs’ critical content. In a number of entries, the two interviewed local residents and filmed street gatherings in protest of official policies. According to multiple sources, a satirical video the bloggers produced and posted on YouTube in late June was the main reason for their incarceration. The video criticized Azerbaijan’s alleged import of donkeys from abroad at excessively high prices. The video sketch depicts a pseudo press conference, at which Hajizade, wearing a donkey suit, talks to a group of Azerbaijani “journalists”; Milli reportedly filmed.

“We call on Azerbaijani authorities to scrap these fictitious charges against Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade and release them,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Police entrapment such as provoking a fight has become a tool for silencing critical journalists and writers in Azerbaijan.”

Commenting on the guilty verdict today, Judge Araz Huseynov said it was based on police reports and the alleged injuries of the two plaintiffs, Emin Huseynov, the director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, whose representatives were monitoring the trial, told CPJ. Huseynov added that the judge had ignored witness testimony by restaurant patrons who said they saw the two men attack the bloggers and not vice versa.

From the beginning of the trial in early September, the prosecution gave contradictory statements, including by the alleged attackers, according to Azerbaijani news reports. Attackers gave different accounts of the alleged beating when questioned in court.