After a two-week delay, the high-profile trial of two Azerbaijani youth activists resumed briefly on October 27 before the judge ordered a 10-day adjournment. Supporters of the jailed duo contend that the repeated and lengthy delays constitute a human rights violation. Some experts, meanwhile, assume the verdict will be dependent on a political decision and suggest that authorities have yet to settle on a way to wrap up the proceedings.
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 on charges of hooliganism after they allegedly started a brawl in a Baku cafe. The defendants have continuously maintained their innocence, and have asserted that the charges against them are politically motivated. . International organizations have called on the Azerbaijani government to release the men. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The pair's trial began on September 4 with scores of supporters in attendance. In the nearly two-months that have elapsed since then, however, only a handful of court sessions have occurred. As the proceedings drag on, fewer supporters are gathering at the courtroom to hear testimony and provide moral support for the defendants.
The October 27 hearing began with the testimony of yet another police official who was working the night of the alleged altercation. The officer, who registered the defendants at the ninth police district, attempted to distance himself from any association with the defendants. When asked by defense lawyer Isakhan Ashurov whether he asked Hajizade or Milli why they had come to the police station, the officer replied, "That's not my role." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One witness, the director of the cafÃ©, has failed to appear on numerous occasions and is allegedly suffering from health problems. She was absent again on October 27, and the prosecution sought to delay the trial until she is well enough to take the witness stand. Defense lawyer Ashurov argued it was within the court's power to subpoena the witness, adding that it was improper to delay the trial so long in order to obtain her testimony.
Judge Araz Huseynov ordered court representatives to investigate the witness's health, and then scheduled the next trial session for November 6. The lengthy adjournment prompted ire and frustration among the defense team and its supporters. The date will mark the start of the youth activists' fourth month of confinement.
Some observers suggest the drawn-out proceedings are indicative of behind-the-scenes political uncertainty. Delays in legal proceedings in Azerbaijan can be normal. However, given the simple legal claims at issue and the political overtones of the case, some see ulterior motives. The underlying assumption among many people following the trial is that the proceedings are not based on the law, but on the decisions of officials who want to punish Milli and Hajizade for activities that supposedly undermined governmental authority.
"There hasn't been any reasonable explanation about [the delays] from the authorities," said Nick Enz, public relations coordinator for the Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety. One plausible scenario is that the court processes are being further drawn out because "there is no final political decision on the [youth activists] yet," Enz suggested.
Others expressed hope that the government was looking for a face-saving way to wrap up the trial with an acquittal. "There might be a double game in place," commented Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani blogger who has followed the case closely. She believes that by keeping the defendants behind bars throughout the lengthy trial, the government may be trying to impose a de facto sentence on them. Thus, if the trial ends in a not-guilty verdict, officials can nevertheless feel that they have sent a tough message to Milli and Hajizade to restrain their criticisms of the government.
According to legal experts, unduly delaying a trial violates the right to a fair hearing guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Baku court has "deliberately dragged out the court trial" and "repeatedly violated Article 6," said Leyla Yunus with the Baku-based Institute of Peace and Democracy.
"This legal trial chaired by Araz Huseynov strikingly indicates the dependence of the judicial system on the executive power, and the use of trials for political pressure on dissidents and repressions, particularly against freedom of speech, thought and self-expression," Yunus added.
While the trial in Azerbaijan remained in an apparent holding pattern, Reporters Without Borders released it annual press freedom index. Azerbaijan was ranked 146 out of 175 countries -- lower than both Armenia and Georgia. The October 10 report stated that Azerbaijan's "[press] situation continued to be really worrying."
Editor's Note: Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.