Law makes an ass of donkey bloggers

Baku, Azerbaijan – Two bloggers from Azerbaijan are facing up to seven years in jail after posting a spoof video of a donkey holding a press conference on YouTube.

In the video – widely seen as a satire on the lack of press freedoms in the country – a pantomime donkey expounds on the many benefits of living in Azerbaijan and praises the government for ‘its positive attitude towards donkeys’. Bloggers Andnan Haji Zadeh and Emin Milli were later arrested in a restaurant and held on charges of hooliganism.

Shortly before their arrest, the bloggers were assaulted by two men. Police were called and arrested the two assailants but then released them and arrested the two bloggers instead.

Zadeh is a video blogger and member of the ‘Ol’ opposition movement, while Milli is one of the founders of a youth group called The Alumni Network. Zadeh’s nose was broken in the attack and Mili sustained leg injuries.

The government says that the arrests were not politically motivated and that it is a simple criminal case following a fight in the restaurant: “People are not arrested in Azerbaijan because of political activity,” said Ali Hasnov, an adviser to President Ilham Aliyev. “There was a scuffle between some young people and some of them were injured. Law enforcement agencies are investigating the case and will give an impartial assessment.”

“This incident is definitely politically motivated,” said the men’s lawyer. “My clients did not beat anybody, quite the opposite.”

An additional charge of ‘intentional physical violence’ has now been brought against the men who have been held on a hooliganism charge since July 8, their lawyer revealed at a news conference. The new charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, in addition to the five years they are already facing for hooliganism.

“There are absolutely no grounds for this decision, which bodes ill for free expression in Azerbaijan,” said media pressure group Reporters Without Borders. “We reiterate our call for the release of Zadeh and Milli, who are being held for political reasons, not because they committed any crime. They have been paying a high price for the dishonesty of the authorities ever since their arrest.”

In a report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in July, Reporters Without Borders accused the Azerbaijani government of systematically using charges of hooliganism and defamation to suppress free expression.

Late last month, the Baku court rejected another complaint by the bloggers accusing the interior ministry, the prosecutor’s office and the Baku police of failing to respect the principle that a person is presumed innocent until proved guilty. The bloggers have not been allowed visits from family members since their arrest in July.

Before the high-profile arrest, only a few hundred people had seen the video, but the publicity generated means that thousands have now watched it.