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Azeri Bloggers Receive Prison Sentences For 'Hooliganism'


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WATCH: As police escorted Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli from the Baku courtroom to prison after the verdict, supporters outside applauded the two and shouted, "Freedom!" and, "Ilham, hands off the youth!"

By Brian Whitmore and Anna Zamejc

A court in Azerbaijan has sentenced two opposition bloggers to prison terms in a case that has brought international attention to declining media freedoms in the oil-rich South Caucasus nation.

The court handed the bloggers -- Adnan Hajizada, 26, and Emin Milli, 30 -- sentences of 2 and 2 1/2 years, respectively.

Milli's attorney, Elton Guliyev, called the case a miscarriage of justice and vowed to appeal -- all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.

"This was not a normal legal case. It was political," Guliyev told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "Starting from now, we can say that these young people are political prisoners because they were arrested solely on the basis of political motivations."

The two men were convicted on hooliganism charges tied to a scuffle in a Baku restaurant in July.

Hajizada and Milli say they were attacked in the restaurant in a politically motivated provocation in retribution for criticizing the government.

Shortly before the attack and their subsequent arrest, the two men had posted a satirical video blog (see below) of a press conference with a donkey that lampooned government corruption.

Hajizada's father, Hikmet, was devastated by the verdict.

"This case is humiliating for Azerbaijan's image and for Azerbaijani citizens. I cannot understand how and for what reasons the court did this. I have no answer to these questions," Hajizada said.

"We will file the case to the appeals court. We will continue protecting them. Adnan and Emin are tough guys. They did not beg the court for mercy."

WATCH: Video recorded secretly and contributed to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service by a citizen journalist of the sentencing:

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The sentences were milder than the three- and 3 1/2-year sentences prosecutors had asked for. Supporters of the bloggers acknowledged the sentences could have been harsher, but were nevertheless disappointed by the outcome.

"So, this is life. We understand the system. We understand how oppressive the system is," said Erkin Gadirli, co-founder of the Baku-based NGO Pro-Republic Alternative. "We will simply do what we believe is right in this situation, but we don't have much hope of getting a particular result."

We Will Punish You

Analysts say that with parliamentary elections looming next year, the authoritarian government of President Ilham Aliyev is clearly spooked by the proliferation of blogs and social-networking sites that have become increasingly popular among young Azerbaijanis.

Baku-based political analyst Ilgar Mammadov tells RFE/RL that the authorities fear such new media could turn into a powerful resource for the opposition.

"This sentence is a warning to youth activists, and not only activists but all youth who are thinking about engaging in politics or social networks. The message is clear: 'We will punish you for that,'" Mammadov says.

WATCH: RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Director Kenan Aliyev talks about the significance of the conviction and Azerbaijan's tightly controlled media environment:

Flash Analysis - Azerbaijani Bloggers
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After the court delivered its verdict, a group of people gathered outside the court building in a show of support for the two men, chanting "Freedom" and "Ilham, hands off of the youth."

Pro-government media figures like Bextiar Sadiqov, editor of the official parliamentary daily "Azerbaijan," meanwhile, said they backed the court's decision.

"The prosecutor filed the criminal case in court, the witnesses testified, and the young people had their lawyers to defend them. Under these conditions I cannot say the decision is unfair," Sadiqov said.

But critics say the court proceedings cast doubt on the fairness of the case. One of the key witnesses, a man involved in the restaurant fracas, has said he wrote "what the police told me to" in his criminal complaint.

Strongly Condemned

Terri Davidson, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baku, expressed concern about the verdicts.

"We have followed the case very closely and we are very concerned about cases like Adnan and Emin, who are very involved, speaking out, and exercising their freedom of speech," Davidson said.

The State Department issued a statement calling the court's decision "a step backwards for Azerbaijan's progress toward democratic reform." The statement criticized "the nontransparent investigation, closed-door hearings, and disproportionate legal charges," saying they "raised concerns about the independence of the police and the judiciary as well as about restrictions on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan."

Western governments and international organizations like the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have strongly condemned the case against Milli and Hajizada.

But NGO worker Gadirli said the international community is also partly to blame for the bloggers' plight.

"Intergovernmental organizations like the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the UN have actually contributed to this situation, because they have been treating Ilham Aliyev as a reformer, they have been praising this country as a top economic reformer," Gadirli said.

Western governments have indeed courted Aliyev heavily, largely due to Azerbaijan's energy wealth and its role in high-profile projects like the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which seeks to provide an alternative to Russia's near-monopoly on Europe's energy supplies.

WATCH: In the following video, the OL youth movement poke fun at the Azerbaijani government for its "waste" of oil money following reports that Azerbaijan had imported two donkeys from abroad with a price tag of $41,000 each:

Hajizada is the head of the OL youth movement, which has distributed satirical videos that criticize government policies and highlight the social problems of young people. Milli is also known as a critic of the government and has been very active on social networks like Facebook.

In one video -- the one many observers believe caused their arrest -- members of OL make fun of the government for its "waste" of oil money. After local media reported that Azerbaijan had imported two donkeys from abroad with a price tag of $41,000 each, an activist dressed as a donkey holds a press conference saying that Azerbaijan is a country where it's easy for a donkey to succeed.

In the South Caucasus, the word "donkey" is a deeply insulting epithet, implying a lack of intelligence.

Over the years, Azerbaijan has come under sharp criticism for its suppression of independent media. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the country the top jailer of journalists in Europe and Eurasia.

In 2007-08, a total of 10 journalists were incarcerated and one, Novruzali Mamedov, died in prison under suspicious circumstances in August. Currently, three journalists are in prison in Azerbaijan in what rights groups say are politically motivated cases.

But despite the government's repressive tactics, analysts say the authorities will be hard-pressed to control the brave new world of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter -- and a young generation that is increasingly savvy about using them.

"There are not enough police and there are not enough courts to catch and sentence every youth activist," Mammadov said.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report