BAKU (Reuters) -- European Union officials visiting Azerbaijan protested on July 20 at the arrest of two opposition bloggers, a case seized on by rights groups concerned over shrinking freedoms in the oil-producing state.
"I have informed [President] Ilham Aliyev about our concern over the arrest of the youth activists," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, leading an EU delegation to the South Caucasus, told reporters on leaving Baku.
He said ambassadors of the EU's 27 member states had also submitted a statement to authorities "expressing their concern about the condition of human rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan."
Adnan Hajizada, a video blogger and member of the "OL!" opposition movement, was arrested with activist Emin Milli at a cafe in Baku on July 8 on charges of hooliganism. Their defense team says they were beaten by two men in an unprovoked attack.
Rights groups say the charges are fabricated to punish the activists -- who post their work on the social-networking website Facebook -- for their criticism of the government in the tightly-run former Soviet republic, a supplier of oil and gas to the West from reserves in the Caspian Sea.
In Geneva, where the United Nations Human Rights Committee on July 20 began a two-day hearing on Azerbaijan, the respected London-based Article 19 group accused the Baku government of "systematic abuses of the right to freedom of expression."
Referring to an unsolved 2005 murder of a reporter and other incidents, it said "a climate of impunity for crimes against media workers and human rights defenders pervades Azerbaijan." Journalists who voiced critical views were often "harassed, arbitrarily arrested, attacked."
"This is not the first case in which the Azerbaijani authorities have used criminal charges to silence peaceful dissenting voices," Amnesty International said in a statement issued on July 17.
A Baku court on July 20 rejected a defense appeal against a decision to hold the bloggers for two months pending trial.
"This decision is completely illegal and we will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg," said Milli's lawyer Elton Guliyev. The men face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Opposition politicians and journalists say authorities under Aliyev are growing increasingly intolerant of dissent from civil society and the media. They accuse the West of muting its criticism out of fear of losing favour in the battle with Russia for influence over Azerbaijani energy reserves.
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.
In March this year, a landslide referendum scrapped the two-term presidential limit, allowing Aliyev to extend his rule beyond 2013 if reelected. It followed a decision to ban foreign radio stations from broadcasting on local frequencies.