The New York Times: In Azerbaijan, a Donkey Suit Provokes Laughs and, Possibly, Arrests

Published: July 14, 2009

MOSCOW — Late last month, a group of Azeri bloggers posted their latest tongue-in-cheek opus, a video in which a donkey holds a news conference before a circle of gravely nodding journalists.

Dressed in a voluminous grey costume, 26-year-old Adnan Hajizada he describes the lush life awaiting donkeys in Azerbaijan. To his audience — cosmopolitan young Azeris following his commentaries on Facebook — the video was a sly send-up of the government, which had been accused in the local news media of paying exorbitant prices to import donkeys.

Mr. Hajizada, 26, and his friend Emin Milli, 30, were arrested last week in Baku, in an incident their supporters say could mark the beginning of a crackdown on online media. Azeri authorities said the two physically attacked other men, though eyewitnesses have challenged that account. They are awaiting trial on charges of hooliganism, which carries a sentence of between one and five years in prison.

According to an appeal filed by Mr. Hajizada’s lawyer, the two men were with friends at a restaurant last Wednesday, engrossed in political debate, when two strangers broke into their conversation and started a fight. Mr. Hajizada and Mr. Milli went to a police station to file a complaint about the assault, but instead an investigator opened a criminal case against them, the appeal said.

After American and German diplomats criticized the arrests, the Azeri authorities released a tersely worded statement on Tuesday, urging “embassies of foreign countries to stop interfering in the investigation” and describing the arrests as “an ordinary hooliganism case” with no political overtones.

“Those sites in Azeri society have no sympathizers, and arouse little interest, at least none that we have observed,” said Ali Hassanov, a senior aide in Azerbaijan’s presidential administration. “I honestly had never heard of these young people.”

In Azerbaijan, as elsewhere in the region, Internet use has risen as press freedoms have dwindled. With the Azeri government buoyed by sky-high oil prices in recent years, opposition voices have all but disappeared from public life. Television, once financed by competing oligarchs, has come under solid government control, and advertisers pulled back from newspapers critical of the government. Web sites — especially those registered on foreign servers, which cannot be blocked by the government — became “the last source of information,” said Magerram Zeynalov, 27, a former newspaper reporter.

Mr. Milli and Mr. Hajizada had returned to Baku after attending universities in Germany and the United States, and fell into a loose circle of other Western-oriented young people. Mr. Milli, 30, and launched an online television channel. Mr. Hajizada, who worked in public relations for British Petroleum, organized a youth group, Ol, and began dabbling in video satire — something his father, a major opposition figure, warned him was dangerous.

“I always told him, ‘Be careful, son, be careful,’” said Hikmet Hajizada, who once served as Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Russia. “I told him that. But in our situation, no one knows from what direction danger comes.”

Miriam Lanskoy, a senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy who helped fund Mr. Hajizada’s organization, said the arrests came as a shock because they targeted the small, well-educated and relatively affluent group that has flocked to Internet news sources.

“This is saying to that cream of the crop of young people that you can’t express yourself,” said Ms. Lanskoy. “This is a country that is really trying to hold onto these kids. This is also a message to them.”

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