Azerbaijani Bloggers' Case Widens Assault on Free Expression
Freedom House urges Azerbaijani authorities to drop all charges against two young bloggers arrested shortly after posting a satirical video on YouTube showing a donkey giving a press conference. The trial of Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, scheduled to begin Friday, is an ominous sign that the government is expanding its crackdown on freedom of expression to include new media.
A lawyer for Hajizade and Milli said they were attacked by two men at a restaurant in Baku July 8 and arrested on hooliganism charges after reporting the incident at a local police station. Hajizade is cofounder of the opposition group OL while Milli is a member of the youth opposition group Alumni Network. The men, who remain in pretrial detention, face up to five years in jail if convicted.
"The case against Hajizade and Milli raises deeply troubling questions about the rule of law in Azerbaijan," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "This case fits a disturbing pattern under which independent journalists and others seeking to express themselves end up in the criminal justice system."
The internet is one of the only remaining outlets for dissenting views in Azerbaijan. The country ranks 168 out of the 195 countries and territories covered in the 2009 edition of Freedom of the Press. From an already poor level of performance, Azerbaijan’s press freedom score has fallen further during the presidency of Ilham Aliyev. Journalists are routinely threatened and assaulted with impunity, and five reporters and editors remained behind bars in 2008, with charges ranging from libel and defamation to tax evasion and drug trafficking.
The bloggers' case closely resembles that of opposition journalist Genimet Zakhidov who was sentenced to four years in prison last year for "hooliganism and causing minor bodily harm." Police arrested Zakhidov after a man and woman staged a brawl on the street near his Baku office. Other imprisoned journalists include Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of Realny Azerbaijan and Gündalik Azarbaycan and Nazim Guliyev, editor and founder of Ideal.
At the end of last year, the government suspended international broadcasters including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC from local frequencies. The move came as the country’s leadership advanced a measure to lift term limits on President Aliyev, opening the prospect of a leader-for-life governance system. Azerbaijan experienced the greatest democratic decline of any of the 29 countries covered in the 2009 edition of Nations in Transit, Freedom House's annual study tracking reform in the former communist states of Europe and Eurasia.
"The government of Azerbaijan is severely shrinking the space for free expression, which has serious implications for a range of critical issues, including Azerbaijan’s ability to diversify its economy from reliance on the energy sector to its capacity to combat rampant corruption," said Christopher Walker, Freedom House director of studies.
Azerbaijan is ranked Not Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, and in the 2009 version of Freedom of the Press.
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Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Azerbaijan since 1991.
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