Hooliganism charges against two opposition bloggers in Azerbaijan are unfounded and the case is fresh proof that freedom of speech is dying in the central Asian state, an official from Europe's main rights watchdog said on Thursday.
Adnan Hajizade, a video blogger and member of the OL! opposition movement, was arrested along with youth activist Emin Milli at a cafe in Baku on July 8, after they were beaten by two men in an unprovoked attack according to their defense team.
Azeri authorities say they committed hooliganism. They face 2-5 years in prison if found guilty.
These are critically-minded young bloggers and I know for a fact that they were fully innocent in the dispute, Miklos Haraszti from the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told Reuters.
Haraszti, who is the OSCE's representative on media freedom, said there was enough eye-witness evidence to prove the men were victims in the attack. The pair went to make a police report but were detained instead, he said.
But authorities say the bloggers were to blame.
Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli provoked a fight at a cafe and, being drunk, were behaving as hooligans, the Prosecutor-General office and Baku police said in a joint statement. This case does not have any kind of a hidden political motive, but (is about) pure hooliganism, it read.
Haraszti said such cases had wider implications for media freedom in Azerbaijan, which is a supplier of oil and gas to the West in the strategically important South Caucasus.
The result is a suffocation of an editor's will to cover corruption issues, human rights issues. Freedom of discussion of public issues, is dying, he said.
One of the bloggers, Hadjizade, 26, has worked for energy giant BP's public relations team in Baku for several years. A spokesman for BP, one of the biggest foreign investors in Azerbaijan, said on Sunday the company was making representations to authorities.
Hadjizade suffered a broken nose in the attack and Milli sustained other visible injuries but neither were given medical treatment, said Erkin Gadirli, who is coordinating the defense.
The men were not allowed to see their lawyer of choice and will appeal their detention at a hearing on Friday, he said.
Azerbaijan, which has more imprisoned journalists than any other in the OSCE region, is increasingly accusing independent, critically-minded, non-state reporters of crimes unrelated to their job rather than libel, which was its tactic in the past, the OSCE's Haraszti said.
Law enforcement, instead of protecting journalists against violence is using such cases in order to put victims of violence behind bars. he said.
(Additional reporting by Afet Mehtiyeva in Baku; editing by Robin Pomeroy)