Two video blogging youth activists were released late this week in Azerbaijan, the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Adnan Hajizade, co-founder of the the OL! Youth Movement, and Emin Milli, co-founder of the Alumni Network (AN), were detained on 8 July 2009 after being seriously beaten while dining with a group of other civil society and youth activists in a downtown Baku restaurant.
After reporting the incident to the police, the two activists were instead detained for 48 hours and later placed in pre-trial detention. By the time of their final court hearing on 11 November 2009, Hajizada and Milli had been held in prison for over four months. Local human rights activists expressed concern about the conduct of the trial which eventually ended with a sentence of 2 years in prison for Hajizade and 2.5 years for Emin Milli.
The Presidency of the European Union, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders condemned the verdict. Amnesty International went further, however, by adopting both men as prisoners of conscience.
Despite earlier efforts to have the two men released on parole, in addition to appeals from U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, few of their supporters believed that either would be released before completing their sentences. However, in a surprise development, an appeal court ordered Hajizade's conditional release yesterday while Milli was freed earlier today.
Some international observers believe that their release is an attempt by the Azerbaijani government to deflect international criticism of parliamentary elections held earlier this month. However, on the same day that Hajizade was set free, Baxtiyar Haciyev, an activist and unsuccessful candidate for the controversial vote, was detained for so far unspecified reasons on the border with neighboring Georgia.
Whatever the reason for their release, however, both Hajizade and Milli maintain their innocence, alleging that the initial attack was planned in order to prevent them from continuing with their activities. Both men had staged a mock press conference just weeks before being arrested criticizing planned amendments to the law on NGOs and news that donkeys had been imported into the country for tens of thousands of dollars.
With Hajizade dressed for the clip in a donkey outfit, the two activists soon became known as the ‘donkey bloggers’ after their arrest. Using YouTube extensively to disseminate their video materials, when asked by RFE's Azerbaijan service if he will continue to blog, Hajizade's answer was simple. “Yes, yes,” he said as he left the courtroom, despite the conditional nature of both men's release. “Video blogging.“
A summarized chronology of events surrounding the imprisonment of Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli as well as the campaign for their release can be found in Global Voices’ Caucasus 2009 Blog Review.
Emin Milli (left) reunited with Adnan Hajizade (right) after their release this week. Photo via @leylanajafli.