Reuters: "Azerbaijan tries bloggers; rights groups concerned"

Fri Sep 4, 2009 7:22pm IST

By Afet Mehtiyeva

BAKU (Reuters) - Two opposition bloggers went on trial in Azerbaijan on Friday in what rights groups say is part of an attempt to silence dissent and serve warning to emerging online media in the oil-producing state.

Adnan Hajizade, 26, and Emin Milli, 30, were arrested in July after an incident in a cafe in Baku. They say they were victims of an unprovoked attack, while police have charged them with hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm.

They face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Their arrest came shortly after Hajizade posted his latest tongue-in-cheek swipe at authorities under President Ilham Aliyev in which he held a news conference dressed as a donkey.

Milli, a member of the youth opposition group Alumni Network, said the trial was a "political process" motivated by their online work.

"We are just expressing our opinion as citizens of this country. Such things (their arrests) happen only in authoritarian states," he told the hearing attended by Western diplomats and civil society representatives.

The judge refused bail and adjourned the trial until Sept 16.

The European Union has expressed concern over the case, and international rights watchdogs have warned of a crackdown on online media in the tightly-controlled former Soviet republic.


"It's really giving out a signal - don't try to organise yourselves, don't try to come up with means of public debate and particularly don't try new media," Nathalie Losekootat freedom of expression watchdog Article 19, told Reuters.

In a statement, Freedom House said the case was "an ominous sign that the government is expanding its crackdown on freedom of expression to include new media."

Azeri authorities deny it is politically motivated, saying it is "an ordinary hooliganism case".

But opposition politicians and rights groups say Aliyev's government is growing increasingly intolerant of dissent from civil society and the media.

They accuse the West of muting its criticism out of fear of losing out on Azeri energy reserves in the Caspian Sea.

In July, the independent U.N. Rights Committee expressed concern at the blogger case, as well as reports of attacks on journalists, the closure of independent newspapers and removal of licences for foreign radio stations to broadcast locally.

The Aliyev family has dominated Azerbaijan for decades, first under long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev and since 2003 under his son Ilham. Rights groups say a personality cult built around Heydar has made dissent dangerous.

The government denies curbing freedoms, and points to an economic boom -- fuelled by oil -- that it says makes Aliyev genuinely popular. Economic growth has slowed considerably this year and last due to a fall in oil prices.

(Additional reporting by Lada Yevgrashina and Matt Robinson)

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