BAKU (AFP)–Two bloggers arrested after posting a satirical Internet video of a donkey giving a press conference went on trial in Azerbaijan Friday, in what rights group say is an attempt to silence new media.
Adnan Hajizade, 26, and Emin Milli, 29, are facing up to five years in prison on hooliganism charges after they were arrested on July 8 following a scuffle at a Baku restaurant.
The bloggers, who have been held in jail since their arrests, say they were attacked and arrested for political reasons because of their online criticism of authorities in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich, ex-Soviet republic.
Authorities say the charges are unrelated to the bloggers’ criticism of the government.
The bloggers’ lawyer, Isakhan Ashurov, told AFP the trial adjourned after several hours and is to resume on September 16.
He said the two men told the court their arrests were “politically motivated” and related to their criticism of a referendum earlier this year that lifted presidential term limits in Azerbaijan, allowing President Ilham Aliyev to repeatedly run for office.
The arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments and media rights groups who accuse Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim republic on the Caspian Sea, of curbing free speech and limiting media freedoms.
US-based Freedom House earlier this week called on Azerbaijani authorities to release the bloggers and drop the charges against them.
“The trial is an ominous sign that the government is expanding its crackdown on freedom of expression to include new media,” it 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.”
The European Union, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the UN Human Rights Committee have also raised concerns about the arrests.
Ali Hasanov, a senior advisor to Aliyev, told AFP before the trial that the arrests were a simple criminal case and had no political motive.
“People are not arrested in Azerbaijan because of political activity…. There was a scuffle between some young people and some of them were injured,” he said.
Hajizade, the co-founder of the OL (To Be) youth movement and Milli, a co-founder of online television channel AN Network, are both Western-educated children of opposition activists who were at the centre of a growing circle of young people using the Internet to criticise Azerbaijan’s authorities.
Using sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the activists posted news updates, critical essays and satirical videos, offering an alternative to Azerbaijan’s mainstream television channels and newspapers, which critics allege are under strict government control.