Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 12:28 UK

Jail threat for donkey bloggers

The donkey clip was a satire on press freedom

Two bloggers from Azerbaijan are facing up to five years in jail after posting a video of a donkey giving a news conference on YouTube.

Shortly after the video was released, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were held on hooliganism charges following a scuffle in a restaurant.

Their lawyer says the arrests were politically motivated.

But authorities insist they are investigating a simple criminal case.

In the video, the donkey extols the benefits of living in Azerbaijan and praises the government for its positive attitude towards donkeys.

The video was seen by many as a send-up of government news conferences, which critics say are often little more than propaganda events.

"This incident is definitely politically motivated," said Adnan Hajizade's lawyer Isakhan Ashurov.

"My client did not beat anybody, quite the opposite."

The Azerbaijani government denies that the bloggers' arrest was politically motivated.

"People are not arrested in Azerbaijan because of political activity," said Ali Hasanov, a senior adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, in a statement.

"There was a scuffle between some young people and some of them were injured.

"Law enforcement agencies are investigating the case and will give an impartial assessment," he added.

'Black spot'

Speaking to the BBC, Elsa Vidal - Europe desk officer with Reporters Without Borders - said that press freedoms in Azerbaijan were almost non-existent, making it "one of the black spots of the former USSR".

"The situation is still severe and local public servants enjoy virtual immunity from an investigation from the press when they try and expose corruption," she said.

"There are no grounds for the bloggers to be prosecuted. They should be released and all accusations should be dropped.

"The authorities have more to lose in jailing the bloggers than in freeing them, but who knows what will actually be said at the trial?" she added.

The UN Human Rights Committee also raised concerns about the arrests, saying there were "extensive limitations to the right to freedom of expression" in Azerbaijan.

Supporters of the pair say the arrests might have backfired and given the video far more prominence than it would otherwise have had.

A number of websites calling for the release of the two men have gone live, along with a Facebook group with almost 1,000 members. There is also a video petition.

"Before the arrest, only a few hundred people had seen the video," Erkin Gadirli, a member of the bloggers' support group, told the AFP news agency.

"Since the arrest, the video has been seen by thousands and the number continues to grow.

"The arrest has only promoted the video."



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