WASHINGTON —Leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission today strongly criticized the government of Azerbaijan after a Baku court denied the appeal of youth activists and bloggers Emin Milli (Abdullayev) and Adnan Hajizade, who were sentenced to prison last November.
“This is the latest in a long series of setbacks for independent journalism and civil society in Azerbaijan,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission). “It is clear why the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media labeled Azerbaijan the pre-eminent jailer of journalists in the OSCE region.”
The bloggers were arrested in July in what appeared to be a crude, government-arranged incident at a restaurant, according to the State Department Human Rights Report. Despite suffering injuries in an unprovoked attack, when the two reported the incident to police, they were arrested while the assailants went free. On Nov. 11, a judge sentenced Milli to two and a half years in prison and Hajizade to two years in prison for hooliganism.
“This case illustrates the lack of independence of Azerbaijan’s judicial system,” said Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL). “As the State Department report points out, the judge excluded clearly relevant physical evidence and witness testimony provided by the defense. We understand the bloggers intend to appeal to the Supreme Court, which would give Azerbaijan one more chance to get this case right.”
The Helsinki Commission sent a letter on Dec. 11 to President Ilham Aliyev, expressing deep concern about the convictions and calling for a fair appeal process. The letter, signed by Senators Cardin and Tom Udall (D-NM), and Representatives Hastings, Edward J. Markey (D-MA), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL), called the case a “flagrant miscarriage of justice.” The government never responded to the letter. (View a pdf of the letter here.)
“It is dismaying to see that Azerbaijan’s leadership has not taken to heart OSCE criticism about the lack of press freedom in their country,” said Aderholt. “The arrest and conviction of these two youth activists seem to indicate a determination to stifle dissent before the parliamentary election later this year.”