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Azerbaijan Tries Bloggers; Rights Groups Concerned

Activists Adnan Hajizada (left) and Emin Milli
BAKU (Reuters) -- Two opposition bloggers have gone on trial in Azerbaijan in what rights groups say is part of an attempt to silence dissent and serve warning to emerging online media in the oil-producing state.

Adnan Hajizada, 26, and and Emin Milli, 30, were arrested in July after an incident in a cafe in Baku. They say they were victims of an unprovoked attack, while police have charged them with hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm.

They face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Their arrest came shortly after Hajizada posted his latest tongue-in-cheek swipe at authorities under President Ilham Aliyev in which he held a news conference dressed as a donkey. Milli is a member of the youth opposition group Alumni Network.

The European Union has expressed concern over the case, and international rights watchdogs have warned of a crackdown on online media in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

"It's really giving out a signal -- don't try to organise yourselves, don't try to come up with means of public debate and particularly don't try new media," Nathalie Losekoot, senior Europe program officer at freedom-of-expression watchdog Article 19, told Reuters.

Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor said in a statement, "This case fits a disturbing pattern under which independent journalists and others seeking to express themselves end up in the criminal justice system."

Azerbaijani authorities deny it is politically motivated, saying it's "an ordinary hooliganism case."

But opposition politicians and rights groups say Aliyev's government is growing increasingly intolerant of dissent from civil society and the media.

They accuse the West of muting its criticism out of fear of losing out on Azerbaijani energy reserves in the Caspian Sea.

In July, the United Nations Rights Committee, an independent watchdog, expressed concern at the blogger case, as well as reports of attacks on journalists, the closure of independent newspapers, and removal of licences for foreign radio stations to broadcast locally.

The Aliyev family has dominated Azerbaijan for decades, first under long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev and since 2003 under his son Ilham. Rights groups say a personality cult built around Heydar has made dissent dangerous.

The government denies curbing freedoms, and points to an economic boom -- fuelled by oil -- that it says makes Aliyev genuinely popular. Economic growth has slowed considerably this year and last due to a fall in oil prices.