Preliminary proceedings began on December 22 for two Azerbaijani bloggers and youth activists who were convicted last month on hooliganism charges. The appeal proceedings will take place against a backdrop of increasingly vocal international criticism against Azerbaijan's media policy.
Twenty-six-year-old Adnan Hajizade, a co-founder of the OL (To Be) youth movement, and 30-year-old Emin Milli, a co-founder of the online Alumni Network, were arrested in July for hooliganism after they allegedly started a brawl in a Baku cafe. After a lengthy trial, the pair received prison sentences of two years and two and a half years, respectively. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
The men, who had earlier produced and distributed a satirical video about Azerbaijan's political system, claim they were the victims of an unprovoked attack that was politically motivated.
Isakhan Ashurov, a lawyer for the defense team, argued in the appellate court that the investigation and prior court proceedings violated the defendants' rights to a free trial, as guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The lawyer asked the court to reverse the convictions or, alternatively, to release the men on bail while the appeal was pending before the court. Although Ashurov proposed bail in the amount of 5,000 manats (about $6,229) for each defendant, the court rejected both motions. Further proceedings were delayed until January 8, 2010.
International organizations and foreign governments placed significant pressure on the government of Azerbaijan during the two men's trial; the scrutiny looks like to continue during the appeals process. When the men were ultimately convicted, outside observers were quick to condemn the result. Reporters Without Borders called the proceedings a "sham," while Amnesty International declared the men prisoners of conscience.
That criticism reached a new level last week when the European Union's parliament adopted a resolution in which it called for the release of the bloggers and the reinstatement of broadcast licenses for the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other foreign media. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
The resolution stated that the European Parliament is "concerned about the deterioration of media freedom in Azerbaijan" and "deplores the sentencing . . . of the bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade to harsh prison terms on the basis of highly unlikely charges and an unfair trial." The European body asked for the men to be released immediately and for a new trial to be held in accordance with international standards.
In response, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Elkhan Polukhov charged on December 20 that the European Parliament is applying double standards to its review of Azerbaijan's media environment.
"Although the freedom of speech situation in Azerbaijan does not differ from that in other countries of the region and even outperforms on a number of positive indicators, namely our country faces the greatest criticism in this regard that raises questions," Polukhov told Trend news agency. The fact that the two imprisoned bloggers can appeal their convictions renders the European Parliament's resolution "ungrounded," the news agency paraphrased Polukhov as saying.
Given the government's reaction to similar international criticism during the trial, some local observers doubt the European Parliament resolution will succeed. The resolution "won't have any short- term effect unless serious measures like suspending Azerbaijan's membership in the Council of Europe occur," one of the bloggers' supporters told EurasiaNet. "Honestly, I think as long as the EU [European Union] and Azerbaijan have gas and oil deals, there is little room for democracy development," added the supporter, who asked to remain anonymous.
Others, however, see the resolution as an important step both practically and symbolically. In addition to providing moral support to youth activists, the resolution illustrates "to what extent Azerbaijan is moving further and further away from becoming a decent, democratic and internationally respected country in Europe, despite the government's propaganda to the contrary," claimed Bart Woord, secretary-general of the London-based International Federation of Liberal Youth, which promotes youth blogging.
Azerbaijan's human rights record, a past topic for debate, will not be featured for discussion at the January 25-29 winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, according to a schedule released on December 21.
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.