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Council Of Europe Rights Official Criticizes Azerbaijan

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg
The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, has issued a report on Azerbaijan urging officials to protect freedom of expression in the country, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.

Hammarberg told RFE/RL that the report is "constructive but critical" and that Azerbaijani authorities should take it seriously, particularly the portion that deals with the "problem of freedom of expression [in Azerbaijan]."

The report was based on Hammarberg's observations during meetings he held in Azerbaijan in March and focuses on freedom of expression and association, the conduct of law enforcement officials, and the administration of justice.

Hammarberg said he's concerned "about cases of threats, harassment, and violence against journalists or human rights activists which have not been properly investigated."

He called on Azerbaijani authorities to release jailed bloggers Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, who were found guilty of hooliganism but who rights activists say were prosecuted because of their critical views of the government.

He also called for the release of jailed newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev, in line with a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

"Anyone imprisoned because of views or opinions expressed, including [newspaper editor] Eynulla Fatullayev, Emin [Milli], and Adnan [Hajizada], should be released immediately," Hammarberg said.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that the journalist Eynulla Fatullayev is still kept in prison," Hammarberg said. "The court here in Strasbourg ruled that he should be released immediately and [it said] that all the arguments used in order to sentence him to 8 1/2 years in prison -- because of what he had written -- just don't stand up when it comes to human rights. There I see no convincing arguments on their [the Azerbaijani government's] side."

In comments attached to the report as an appendix, the Azerbaijani government responded to the case against the bloggers. It wrote that "the decision of the court of first instance, [the Sabail district court], was just and lawful and the penalties imposed [against Milli and Hajizade] were proportionate to the nature of the crime."

But Hammarberg refuted the Azerbaijani government's explanation of the bloggers' trial.

"The case brought forward by the prosecutor was not a truthful description of what really happened in this case," he said. "Therefore, also, the sentence by the court was wrong. Frankly, I think this is a setup by the security forces and a great injustice to those young men. This was a further illustration that the court system in Azerbaijan has problems and does not function when it comes to certain critical points relating to human rights."

Milli and Hajizada, who were well-known known for their satirical comments about the Azerbaijani government, were arrested after a scuffle in a restaurant in July 2009. They were found guilty of hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm and sentenced to 2 1/2 and two years in prison, respectively.

A Baku appeals court upheld their conviction in March despite numerous calls from international rights groups and media freedom advocates for clemency.