BAKU (Reuters) - A court in Azerbaijan sentenced two opposition bloggers to jail terms Wednesday in a case that has stirred international concern over freedom of expression in the oil-producing Caspian Sea state.
Adnan Hajizade, 26, was sentenced to two years in prison and Emin Milli, 30, to two years and six months over an incident in a cafe in Baku, a member of their defense team told Reuters.
The two have been held since the incident in July, in which the bloggers say they were the victims of an unprovoked attack which they reported to police.
They were arrested and later charged with hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm.
The incident came shortly after Hajizade, a video blogger and member of the OL! opposition movement, posted his latest tongue-in-cheek swipe at authorities under President Ilham Aliyev in which he held a news conference dressed as a donkey.
“There can be no greater honor than to be imprisoned for your ideals,” Milli, a youth activist and blogger, shouted out to the court, to applause from supporters.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Azerbaijan’s actions were “self-revealingly political.”
“These new imprisonments cement Azerbaijan’s image as the pre-eminent jailer of journalists in the OSCE region,” the OSCE’s media freedom official, Miklos Haraszti, wrote in a letter to Azerbaijan’s foreign minister.
“Five journalists are currently in prison, several of them on clearly trumped-up charges following organized provocations and unfair trials,” Haraszti wrote, according to the Vienna-based OSCE’s website.
The European Union had also voiced concern about the trial and rights watchdogs say the case highlights intolerance of dissent in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
The defense team said they would appeal.
“If we don’t get a satisfactory decision, and normally you wouldn’t expect a satisfactory decision from this system, then we’ll apply to the Supreme Court and then ultimately to the European Court of Human Rights,” said lawyer Erkin Gadirli.
Azeri authorities deny the case is politically motivated. But rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Article 19 say Aliyev’s government is extending a crackdown on civil society and opposition press to emerging online media.
Opposition politicians and media accuse the West of muting its criticism of rights restrictions for fear of losing out on lucrative Azeri oil and gas contracts in the Caspian Sea.
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 the late Heydar Aliyev has made dissent dangerous.
The government denies curbing freedoms and points to an economic boom — fueled by oil — that it says makes the president genuinely popular.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Vienna and Matt Robinson, Writing by Matt Robinson, editing by Mark Trevelyan