Two Legs Good, Four Legs Bad

The arrest of two Internet activists is worrying for those young Azerbaijanis who choose not to follow the official line

The use of social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – in organizing and galvanizing protest against the presidential election in Iran has been a hot media topic of late, full of hyperbole as well as misinterpretation. But a short distance to the north, in neighboring Azerbaijan, the growing power of social and new media to mobilize opposition has also become readily apparent. And while Azerbaijani officials are not nearly as savvy in the online world as their Iranian counterparts, a recent incident shows they may finally be waking up to the new possibilities and clamping down.

On 8 July, two young Internet activists, Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, were sitting in a Baku restaurant talking politics with friends when, they say, two unknown men sitting at a table nearby attacked them. Hajizada received a broken nose and Milli a leg injury, but when they went to report the incident and file a complaint, they were instead accused of a criminal act and the two other men released. After an initial trip to the hospital, human rights organizations say, they were held for 48 hours without further medical care or access to their lawyer. A judge then ordered two months of pretrial detention for Hajizada and Milli, who have been charged with hooliganism, a crime punishable by a sentence of one to five years in prison.

While evidence has yet to surface that the initial incident was some sort of planned provocation, the subsequent behavior of the authorities has sparked widespread suspicion among youth activists, the opposition, and international organizations of a political subtext to the incident. Those who know the detainees say the accusation that they attacked anyone is absurd; “everyone knows these are non-violent people that couldn’t hurt a fly,” one youth activist told TOL. Neither Hajizada nor Milli is a prominent member of a political party, but they have both been thorns in the side of the authorities in their own ways, especially as pioneers in the use of social media to spread dissatisfaction with the state’s treatment of young people and other controversial policies.

Milli, 30, has been the more outspoken of the two. He has worked for several international organizations in Azerbaijan, including as an advisor to the Council of Europe on the issue of political prisoners, and, in 2005, helped found the Alumni youth network. In recent years, he has spoken out publicly, at home and abroad, against government restrictions on freedom of expression and the decision to hold a referendum on removing presidential term limits (since approved, in March). And as an active blogger with thousands of friends on Facebook, he has not been afraid to use online tools to share his views.

Though the son of a prominent opposition politician (the one-time ambassador to Russia), the 26-year-old Hajizada has preferred more subtle critiques, less confrontational. His day job has been in the oil company BP’s public relations department, but on the side he also played a key role in launching the well-known OL! youth movement. He has also generated a loyal following for his blog posts and video creations.

Over the past few days, many have been pointing to one of Hajizada’s latest videos as the trigger for the recent arrests. The mock press conference features Hajizada dressed in a donkey suit, casually answering questions from a group of serious-faced journalists. The clever parody pokes fun at the government’s reported purchase of expensive donkeys from abroad. He talks about the higher standards of living for donkeys in Azerbaijan, why he demanded such a high price (he speaks three languages and plays the violin), and finds time to mention a restrictive new NGO law pending in parliament.

More likely, however, the authorities had been closely following online activists since the events of this May. Many young people were outraged at the time over the government’s actions in the wake of a mass shooting at a Baku university. Not only did officials refuse to release much information about the killings (sparking rumors of a cover-up), but they also rejected calls to declare a day of mourning for the murdered students or at least tone down a lavish, annual celebration of Heydar Aliev’s birthday (the former president and father of the current president). In response, thousands of young people organized online through social networks, creating protest groups and writing petitions.

The online dissent has yet to translate into mass demonstrations in the “real” world, but the two men’s arrests would seem to indicate that the authorities are worried. Compared with pesky NGOs (those that manage to satisfy the extremely stringent rules on registration), officials have fewer legal weapons against bloggers and loose online networks, and unlike with the traditional opposition, the state can’t use the massive powers in the hands of the executive branch to largely squeeze these voices out of the political process. News of young bloggers being thrown into prison, possibly over a satirical video, also travels worldwide a lot better than the jailing of grizzled political veterans. And for a government that has made spreading Internet connectivity and computer literacy a priority, the choice to limit access and start widespread banning of sites probably doesn’t come into consideration.

As so often happens in the post-Soviet space, in all likelihood the autocrats in Azerbaijan will look to Russia for a list of “good” practices and lessons learned in fighting Internet enemies of the state. As detailed by TOL and other international media over the past few years, the Kremlin has made a science of crowding out Internet criticism.

Popular methods including leaning on Internet service providers to remove “offensive” material, creating friendly blogger brigades – some voluntary and some paid – and employing vaguely worded extremist laws. In early June, news emerged of a new “blogger school” set up by a Kremlin-connected think tank, the Fund for Effective Politics. The group’s mission? “To teach young people how to defend Russia’s interests in cyberspace,” according to The Christian Science Monitor, which reported the story.

One of the final frames of Hajizada’s video – after the “donkey” says he has to leave for a meeting of the nation’s donkeys and the press conference ends with a standing ovation – showed a question that has turned out to being particularly prescient for its author and his friend, Emin Milli: “There will be someone to protect donkeys’ civil rights, but what about human civil rights?”

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