Many international and domestic observers worry that the recent convictions of two youth activist-bloggers in Azerbaijan are sounding the death knell for the democratization process in the South Caucasus country.
Twenty-six-year-old Adnan Hajizade, a co-founder of the OL (To Be) youth movement, and 30-year-old Emin Milli, a co-founder of the online Alumni Network, were arrested on July 8 for hooliganism after they allegedly started a brawl in a Baku cafe. The pair received prison sentences of two years and two and a half years respectively after a lengthy trial. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The men, who had earlier produced and distributed a satirical video about Azerbaijan's political system, claim they were the victims of an unprovoked attack that was politically motivated. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Reacting to the November 11 guilty verdict, the US Department of State identified several central failings of Azerbaijan's law enforcement and judicial system: "The non-transparent investigation, closed court hearings, disproportionate legal charges, and failure to detain and charge the assailants have raised concerns about the independence of the police and the judiciary as well as about restrictions on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan."
The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, also released a statement criticizing the case. "Without [freedom of expression] there is no freedom, no creativity, no good ideas, no good solutions and no social progress. What is at stake is not only the freedom of Adnan and Emin, but the freedom and well-being of all people in Azerbaijan."
The bloggers' conviction has added to existing concerns that Azerbaijan is turning a blind eye to its international human rights commitments and trying to eliminate political dissent. Earlier this year, the government terminated licenses for international radio broadcasters, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In March, President Ilham Aliyev further cemented his authority by pushing through a controversial constitutional amendment that established that presidential elections need not be held "during a state of war." [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The conviction in this case is a terrible signal about Azerbaijan's commitment to the standards that it has freely taken upon itself," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Europe and Central Asia division. "[Azerbaijan] is thumbing its nose at the values presented by European and American partners," she said. [Editor's note: HRW receives funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI). New York-based EurasiaNet.org operates under OSI's auspices.]
International organizations and Western governments put ongoing pressure on Azerbaijan about the case, lobbying for the duo at the highest levels of government.
But Council of Europe Secretary General Jagland, speaking in a November 14 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, acknowledged that foreign governments have limited means to effect real change in Baku. "It's always difficult when member states are not complying with their obligations to the Council of Europe. The only thing we can do is to always remind them about their obligations," Jagland told RFERL. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some observers suggested that Azerbaijani leaders believes they can ignore international pressure because of the country's energy wealth and its strategic location. "There is [a] feeling that Azerbaijan is in no need to ask for anything from the West. Instead, it has something to be asked for -- its own gas and access to Central Asia. It is this self-confidence that makes the Azeri government arrogant as well as selective towards comments from abroad," said Baku-based blogger and political analyst Ali Novruzov.
HRW's Denber stressed the need for continued pressure. "This case and the issues that underpin it need to be raised at the highest level," she said. "Whenever there are meetings between the Azerbaijan and European Union leadership -- not just on human rights issues -- [Western leaders must demonstrate] this is important in the broader context."
Aside a brief comment from a senior member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party in Baku, government officials have not commented about the trial's outcome. Similarly, mainstream Azerbaijani media outlets have not reported on the trial or the verdict.
With no media coverage of the trial, most Azerbaijanis -- particularly those outside of Baku -- know nothing about the case or the controversy surrounding it. That adds to doubts among supporters of the bloggers about whether or not Azerbaijan's restrictive media environment and top-down justice system will change anytime soon. "There were always [young] people leaving this country and I'd always ask them 'Why, why are you leaving? Why don't you stay and fight and try to change the system instead of running away?'" related Minai Massimova, a childhood friend of the defendants.
"But when this happened and I came face to face for the first time [with the injustice] ... I realized how weak you are against the system," she continued. "Not only weak, but how hopeless it all is."
One blogger echoed those concerns, but added that the trial verdict could serve as a tipping point for change. "We are so small in comparison to what we are trying to change that sometimes it makes me doubt whether things are possible," said Arzu Geybullayeva. "But at the end of the day, I believe change is possible, [even if] it takes a lot of time."
Other young Azerbaijanis take a less optimistic view, however. "At first, you feel outrage [about the blogger verdict]," said one. "And then over time it just becomes one more injustice."
Editor's Note: Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.