Outcry at Detention of Azeri Opposition Bloggers

Press watchdog says case typical of arbitrary judicial decisions taken against government opponents.

Outcry at Detention of Azeri Opposition Bloggers

Press watchdog says case typical of arbitrary judicial decisions taken against government opponents.

Diplomats, rights groups and opposition politicians in Azerbaijan have expressed strong concerns over the detention of two youth activists who say they were attacked in a Baku restaurant.



Independent commentators speculated that the arrest and detention of the two men, who are prominent opposition bloggers, could be intended to send a signal to the outside world not to put pressure on Azerbaijan over alleged human rights violations.



Emin Abdullayev (also known as Milli), head of the opposition youth movement the Alumni network, and Adnan Hajizade, son of a prominent opposition politician and leader of the Ol group, were sitting in the restaurant on July 9 when two sturdily-built young men are said to have approached them.



Orkhan Gafarli, a friend of the two men who was sitting with them at the time, told IWPR that he did not hear the start of the conversation but saw how one of the two men head-butted Hajizade in the nose, and a fight broke out.



“When we appealed to the police station, the attackers were already waiting there for us. The way our two lads were treated quickly changed, and a decision was taken to detain Adnan and Emin, and to release the others,” Gafarli said.



The next day, a local court in Baku’s Sabail region, sitting in closed session, decided to extend their detention by two months under a law regulating hooliganism, which allows for a person found guilty to be imprisoned for up to five years.



“The judge must urgently re-examine the case because holding them for two months is disproportionate,” said press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.



“It is typical of the arbitrary judicial decisions taken with government opponents. They were not allowed to see a lawyer and the charges brought against them are baseless. We are worried about their state of health and call for their immediate release.”



Journalists and civil society activists are often the target of threats and physical violence in Azerbaijan, which was ranked 150th out of 173 countries in the 2008 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. President Ilham Aliev is on the group’s list of “predators of press freedom”.



The United States embassy in Azerbaijan also expressed its concern about “the reports that they have been beaten by unknown assailants and detained pending trial while their assailants have been released”.



“We are also concerned by reports that the police denied them access to their lawyers and adequate medical care… We have raised this issue with senior officials of the Government of Azerbaijan and law enforcement officials. We will continue to do so,” an embassy statement said.



The interior ministry took the unusual step of releasing a statement justifying the judge’s detention, saying that Abdullayev and Hajizade had been “violating ethical norms by their behaviour”.



“When the citizens Vusal Mammadov and Babek Huseynov requested that they act in a more orderly manner, Abdullayev and Hajizade without any justification used physical force against them, committing this hooliganism,” the statement said.



But that did not satisfy Hajizade’s father Hikmet, a leading member of the Musavat opposition party, who feared the length of detention might be extended even further.



“This has happened in Azerbaijan many times, that a period of detention is extended during a political legal process,” he told IWPR.



“In any case, politicised legal processes in no way help the authorities, since they simply raise tensions in society, and harm the reputation of Azerbaijan in the international arena.”



They are not the first opposition-inclined journalists to be arrested under this law. Ganimat Zahid, editor-in-chief of the Azadliq newspaper, was arrested in autumn 2007 and his period of detention was extended repeatedly until March 7, 2008, when he was convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to four years in prison.



“I used to think that these were just coincidences, now I think that actions of this kind have a kind of logic,” said Eldar Namazov , a political commentator. “Maybe the authorities want to demonstrate that Azerbaijan will not allow any democratic changes and that they will only cooperate [with the outside world] in the spheres of energy and security.”



Be that as it may, the interior ministry and general prosecutor’s office issued a joint statement on July 12 complaining about the international anger sparked by the arrests.



“We decisively protest against the doubt expressed about this case concerning simple hooliganism and against statements intended to cast a shadow over its objectivity,” the statement said.



“We see such actions as pressure on the investigation and an attempt to create an incorrect impression in society that only foreign states and international organisations are interested in the development of democracy and the defence of human rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan.



“We request that the diplomatic missions of certain countries halt their interference in investigations and in the internal affairs of this country.”



Maharram Zeynalov is an IWPR contributor and a member of the Cross Caucasus Journalism Network, CCJN.
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