One day after the surprise release of jailed blogger and youth activist Adnan Hajizade, a Baku court on November 19 freed Azerbaijan’s second so-called “donkey blogger,” Emin Milli. Soon after regaining his freedom, Milli vowed to keep working to have his original conviction thrown out.
Thirty-one-year-old Milli had been serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for hooliganism and violence, a charge brought against him in 2009 after the distribution of a video produced by Milli and Hajizade that satirized the government’s import of donkeys. Hajizade had been serving a two-year prison sentence for the same charge. Both maintain their convictions were politically motivated. Their trial generated much unwanted publicity for the Azerbaijani government, and their convictions drew international condemnation.
With that sensitivity in mind, efforts were taken not to publicize the November 19 hearing for Milli’s petition for an early release; the court date was not announced beforehand.
Speaking at his home in Baku, after an emotional reunion with fellow blogger Hajizade, Milli told EurasiaNet.org that he will continue to push for a full acquittal of his conviction for hooliganism and violence. Milli’s defense attorney, Elton Guliyev, said a case has already been filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, against Milli and Hajizade’s convictions and alleged procedural violations in the government’s prosecution of the two men.
“[T]heir release is not a manifestation of justice. Because they should not have been imprisoned,” Guliyev asserted. “We are happy and we welcome our friends back, but the case is not over since they are not acquitted [of the charges brought against them].”
An active blogger about Azerbaijan’s social ills, Milli said that he “didn’t expect to be arrested that soon.”
“I thought that if I do what I do, I would be arrested in some five years, maybe 10 years, but it happened sooner than I expected,” said Milli, a founder of the Alumni Network youth group.
Expressing thanks for the international efforts to secure his release, Milli said that books such as one he received from former Czech president Vaclav Havel “gave me a lot of support.” The book passed on by Havel, a dissident who led the Velvet Revolution in 1989, an event that played a key role in bringing down the Soviet empire, was an inscribed copy of Letters to Olga, a memoir of his experiences as a political prisoner.
“I still don’t understand why exactly they arrested me and what exactly they wanted to achieve,” Milli continued. “I can only guess that it was for the information we have been disseminating.”
Opinions vary over the reasons for Milli and Hajizade’s early release.
Calling the timing “suspicious,” lawyer Erkin Gadirli, the coordinator of the campaign that pressed for Milli and Hajizade’s freedom, believes that the releases “could be part of bargaining between the government and international organizations to minimize the effect of international criticism concerning the recent parliamentary elections.”
The duo’s detention was cited by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as a blotch on Azerbaijan’s October parliamentary elections. Aside from the OSCE, the United States and European governments, international media advocacy, human rights and civil society organizations all lobbied strongly for the pair’s release.
Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety Director Emin Huseynov agreed that the bloggers’ release could be an attempt by the government to diminish criticism about alleged vote falsifications and Azerbaijan’s record on media freedoms. “The government was harshly criticized by international organizations for keeping [newspaper editor] Eynulla Fatullayev and two bloggers in jail, and now the elections have sparked a wave of criticism, Huseynov said. “Two steps forward, one step back. It's the favorite tactics of the Azerbaijani government." [Editor’s Note: The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety receives funding from the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of the Open Society Foundations network.]
International and domestic scrutiny of that record is unlikely to diminish now that Azerbaijan’s “donkey bloggers” are free. Like Hajizade, Milli remains determined to continue his blogging work. “I will continue writing the truth as I did before. Because it is important,” he said.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.