Complete shock reigned in the Baku Court of Appeals on November 18 when the prosecution announced no objections to the release of imprisoned blogger and youth activist Adnan Hajizade. But the announcement was no mistake. After serving 16 months on charges of hooliganism, Hajizade is now free from prison.
Twenty-seven-year-old Hajizade, a leader of the OL Youth Union, and fellow blogger and youth activist Emin Milli were imprisoned in 2009 after a scuffle in a Baku restaurant that followed the distribution of a video the pair had produced that mocked the government’s imports of donkeys. Hajizade received a two-year prison term; Milli was sentenced to two-and-a-half years.
The sentence, widely condemned by international media advocacy groups and Western governments, was seen as an attempt to silence criticism of the government. Among other issues, both men had a reputation for protests against corruption, restrictions on freedom of expression and the referendum to abolish presidential term limits.
Pressure is now likely to mount for 31-year-old Milli’s release as well. After Judge Sahibkhan Mirzayev announced the decision to release Hajizade, the blogger, still surprised, asked: “How about Emin? I want him to be freed as well.”
No date has been given yet for a hearing of Milli’s petition for an early release by the Salyan district court. Hajizade’s lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov, said that lawyers will continue to pursue a full acquittal for both Hajizade and Milli.
Hajizade’s father, political scientist Hikmet Hajizade, characterized his son’s imprisonment as “useless, stupid cruelty,” and expressed appreciation for the international and domestic support that he believes helped secure his son’s release.
“We had to live through a very difficult year, but thanks to democrats here and throughout the world, help of the media and human rights activists, Adnan is free now,” he said.
International human rights organizations, the European Union, the United States and various democracy activists have long called on the Azerbaijani government to free the two bloggers. Their ongoing detention was named by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights monitors as one of the negative aspects of Azerbaijan’s recent parliamentary election campaign.
International and domestic pressure aside, reasons for the prosecution’s sudden change of mind toward Hajizade were not immediately clear. In his remarks to the court, prosecutor Chuingiz Shukurov stated that Hajizade had not committed a grave offense and had not violated any prison rule or regulation. The Garadagh district court had earlier rejected Hajizade’s petition, and prison officials did not recommend his release. During the Court of Appeals session, one prison official characterized as strange Hajizade’s requests to consult with his attorney before answering prison officials’ questions.
In remarks to reporters, Hajizade asserted Milli’s and his innocence and underlined that he will continue video blogging about Azerbaijan’s social problems.
“Freedom is my right. Neither Emin nor I are hooligans,” Hajizade said. “I will continue doing what I used to do before the arrest. I hope Emin will be set free soon as well.”
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.