Youth activists Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were convicted on hooliganism and violence charges in a Baku court on November 11. International observers and youth activists immediately expressed outrage at the verdict.
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 on July 8 for hooliganism after they allegedly started a brawl in a Baku cafe. The prosecution has drawn criticism from international human rights' organizations as well as local youth activists.
In a late-night, last-minute move, the hearing was changed to 10:30 in the morning from a previously scheduled afternoon time. With no notice of the change, fewer supporters were in attendance and the streets in front of the courthouse were silent.
The defendants were offered an opportunity to address the court. Hajizade noted the lack of evidence and argued that in a fair legal system he would not be behind bars. "You do not have to be a professional in the field of law to make a fair decision," Hajizade told the court, according to Turan News. Milli refused to address the court directly, and said he was ready to go to prison for his ideas.
The prosecutor, reading from a prepared statement, sought three and a half years' imprisonment for Milli and three years for Hajizade.
Defense lawyers Isakhan Ashurov and Elton Guliyev, then stood to deliver their closing remarks. According to courtroom witnesses, Ashurov delivered an impassioned address in which he claimed the defendants were innocent on all charges and that the justice system had failed them every step of the way.
Despite the lack of incriminating evidence, Hajizade was sentenced to two years' imprisonment while his co-defendant Milli was given a harsher sentence of two and a half years. The judge gave no rationale for the different sentences.
US embassy spokesperson Terry Davidson was on hand for the verdict and spoke on the courthouse steps. "We regret this verdict. And we lament all efforts to limit freedom of speech," Davidson said.
In a later statement, the US State Department called the verdict "a step backwards for Azerbaijan's progress towards democratic reform."
"The non-transparent investigation, closed court hearings, disproportionate legal charges, and failure to detain and charge the assailants have raised concerns about the independence of the police and the judiciary as well as about restrictions on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan," the statement affirmed.
During his courtroom address, Milli asked supporters to turn to online sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to publicize the case. Throughout the trial, social media has stepped in to fill the void left by traditional Azerbaijani media, which has largely ignored the proceedings. Twitter users covertly used their cell phones during the trial to send out updates, which were often highly opinionated.
Immediately after the verdict was announced, Facebook and Twitter users lit up the blogosphere, expressing outrage at the verdict. One post read, "So, NO rule of law, NO free speech & NO democracy in Azerbaijan!" Another supporter decried, "OMG! Tell me this is a nightmare!"
"Azerbaijan is far ahead of all of its neighbors in terms of online activism," commented Jake Jones, Azerbaijan Country Director for the International Republican Institute. "In Azerbaijan we have seen the creation of these über-networks, where people collect 800 or 900 friends and use that large number to disseminate opinions that normally wouldn't be seen in mainstream media," Jones added.
The World Blogging Forum, currently underway in Bucharest, Romania, immediately issued a statement which expressed concern "about the situation in Azerbaijan." We "support #EminAdnan [the Twitter hashtag for the case] as a Free Voice of the Internet and as a member of the World Blogging Family," the statement continued.
Bart Woord, secretary general of the London-based International Federation of Liberal Youth, which promotes youth blogging, noted the "harsh and unfair verdict" was an escalation in Azerbaijani government tactics. "[The verdict] is an absolute punch that will certainly deter many young people from questioning the corrupt status quo of the [President Ilham] Aliyev regime," Woord told EurasiaNet.
"The fact that the prosecutor overlooked all the evidence . . . simply shows that the Azerbaijan justice system is nowhere near ensuring justice," said Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani blogger who has closely followed the trial. "The situation in Azerbaijan is beyond deteriorating," she added. The verdict, which ignored objections from international organizations, highlights that "the government will continue doing what it wants and how it wants," Geybullayeva said.
Lawyers plan to appeal the decision. Others expressed hope that the men would be pardoned at the end of the year - perhaps on the December 31 Azerbaijan Day of Solidarity, a common occasion for presidential prisoner amnesties, noted Gunel Jafarova, a Baku-based legal expert.
For now, though, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, headed by President Aliyev, has given no sign of an inclination for clemency.
"If there is a sentence, it means they were admitted guilty," Yeni Azerbaijan Party Deputy Chairman and Executive Secretary Ali Ahmadov told APA news service.
Editor's Note: Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.