Page last updated at 23:58 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

Azeri bloggers test limits of democracy

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Baku

Covers at a newspaper stand
Critics say the press is heavily controlled in Azerbaijan

To bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, the notion of freedom has gained a new meaning.

It was the word their friends chanted in loud support as the two men were ushered into the back of a prison van, destined for jail.

That was in November. They had been sentenced to a combined total of four-and-a-half years in jail on hooliganism charges.

The bloggers - and their supporters - say the charges are false. The two men are outspoken critics of the government - and have led anti-government campaigns in the past.

They are also responsible for posting a satirical video on the internet in which a donkey addresses a cabinet meeting.

Growing trend

It was meant to be a sideways swipe at the notion of corruption in Azerbaijan.

But it was, their supporters say, the final straw.

Bloggers face jail for donkey prank

The case has now caught the attention of several international human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

All of them say this is not the first case in which critics have been put in jail seemingly for their outspoken opposition to government policy.

"There is an ongoing and growing trend of imprisoning journalists under different pretexts, such as drugs and hooliganism charges, which look like institutional set-ups," says the OSCE's media representative, Miklos Haraszti.

"All [journalists] are critically-minded people. This means Azerbaijan is the pre-eminent jailer of journalists in the region."

Mr Haraszti says at least five outspoken journalists are now in jail in the country.

The most widely known is Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of Realny Azerbaijan newspaper.

He was jailed in 2007 and is serving a sentence for libel and another for "terrorism, incitement of ethnic hatred, and tax evasion".

Anonymous letters

He has since been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and has been granted an International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mirza Sakit
Mirza Sakit says his three-year prison sentence was politically motivated

Other critics of the government have now been released from jail.

Mirza Sakit, who writes for the opposition newspaper Azadliq was freed earlier in 2009 after serving a three-year sentence for drugs possession.

He argues that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he was, in fact, jailed for his poetry and his writings printed in Azadliq.

"My writing is very critical of certain members of the Azeri government," he says.

"I chose to write because the government always says journalists are jailed 'because of the crime they committed'. I know that to be untrue. And I know the public fear the authorities. Through my writing I wanted to free people from that fear."

Campaigners have long argued that Azerbaijan's media is not free.

TV news channels and the printed media are usually dominated by stories about the activities of the president, though there are some exceptions.

We receive a lot of letters - anonymous letters - about violation of rights. They don't want to talk on the record, but they want their voices out
Khadija Ismayilova, Radio Azadliq

Radio Azadliq - the Azeri branch of Radio Liberty - urges listeners to call in with their concerns, but it is not always easy, says bureau chief Khadija Ismayilova.

"It's a widely-held view in this country that people are afraid to express themselves. We receive a lot of letters, anonymous letters, about violation of rights. They don't want to talk on the record, but they want their voices heard."

So what lies behind this fear?

Campaigners say it is to do with a personality cult surrounding President Ilham Aliyev who took over from his father, Heydar, six years ago.

His government, though, says Azerbaijan is on the path to becoming a fully-fledged democracy.

"No-one goes to prison for what they have written or posted on the internet," says Elnur Aslanov, head of information for Azerbaijan's presidential administration.

"The constitution states that there must be freedom of expression. Criticism is an indicator of democracy. And we are not afraid of criticism."

The Azerbaijan-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety says the number of critics jailed for their work has increased rapidly during the decade - though that is disputed by the government.

'Colour revolutions'

But if it is true, then why is it happening?

Miklos Haraszti says post-Soviet regional politics - the so-called "colour revolutions" in places like Georgia and Ukraine - might be the reason.

He says those movements appear to be inspiring a new wave of civil society, of which Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade play a part.

"It is exactly the case of the bloggers that shows that even since the 'colour revolutions' a new breed of young people has grown up who not only are not intimidated by intimidation but themselves [want] those clashes in the courtroom," he says.

"They are almost happy to demonstrate that they pursue free speech at whatever cost." It appears Mr Haraszti has a point.

As protestors gathered outside the courtroom during his trial, Emin Milli told the court he was proud to be defending freedom of expression by going to prison.

The bloggers' appeal was due to be heard on 22 December, but with such a wide gap between the views of rights groups on the one hand, and the opinion of the authorities in Azerbaijan on the other, few here believe their sentences will be overturned.

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