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Human rights monitors and many members of the international community are concerned over an Azerbaijan court's decision to imprison Azerbaijan youth leaders Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade to prison terms of 2-and-a-half years and 2 years respectively.
Emin Milli is the co-founder of a youth group called Alumni Network. Adnan Hajizade is a coordinator of the OL!, or "To Be," youth movement, which advocates non-violence and tolerance in Azerbaijan civil society. Both are on-line journalists using Internet sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for political and social commentary, sometimes critical of Azerbaijan authorities.
They were arrested and charged with so-called "hooliganism" after an altercation in a café in July, during which they were physically assaulted by 2 men who later claimed to be victims. Upon proceeding to the police station to report the attack, it was Milli and Hajizade who were arrested and charged.
"This court decision is a step backwards for Azerbaijan's progress toward democratic reform," said Ian Kelly, spokesman for the U.S. Department of State. "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."
Mr. Kelly said the U.S. hopes "the events of the past 4 months do not signal a trend in the further erosion of free speech rights in Azerbaijan, and we urge that the appeal process is conducted in a fair, timely, and transparent manner. We also hope that this ruling does not discourage Azerbaijan's civil society to continue its efforts to promote democratic reforms, which the people of Azerbaijan deserve."
Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland said the prison terms given the young journalists "will have an inevitably chilling effect on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan." He urged authorities in Azerbaijan to "critically review their attitude towards media and civil society and public criticism in general, and bring it in line with their obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights."
Amnesty International said it believes the charges against the 2 youth activists were fabricated and that they were imprisoned "solely for exercising the right to freedom of expression."
For its part, the United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Azerbaijan to seek progress on democratic reforms, including freedom of expression and association. An independent judiciary, free from political influence and a vibrant civil society are cornerstones of a modern democratic state.