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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Risk of Mocking Azeri Bureaucrats as Donkeys

I’m ready to take any punishment for the ideals I believe in. It is an honor for me to be imprisoned for my ideals.”

These were the defiant last words of a young Azeri Internet activist just before he and a fellow campaigner were taken from a courtroom last week in Baku to start prison sentences for “hooliganism.” Emin Milli was jailed for 2 1/2 years and Adnan Hajizade for two years after they were convicted of starting a fight in a restaurant. But their friends insist they were prosecuted because they were using online media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to build support for pro-democracy youth movements in Azerbaijan.

“If there was a sentence, it means they were guilty,” a ruling party spokesman said.

Supporters of the two young activists, however, claim that the evidence was fabricated and the verdict was intended as a warning: Public criticism of the authorities can put you behind bars.

“Our special thanks to the Azeri government for they showed to the whole world our ‘justice’ at work,” wrote one Baku-based blogger.

International rights groups and Western diplomats have denounced the prosecution, but Azerbaijan’s massive energy resources have made its government increasingly impervious to external censure.

The case follows a series of clampdowns on traditional media and the imprisonment of several opposition journalists. Political satire is seen as particularly risky. Milli and Hajizade were arrested not long after distributing a comical video clip that featured a talking donkey lampooning official corruption. Local analysts have suggested that the authorities could also be concerned about the rise of new generation of Internet-savvy, independent-minded youth in Azerbaijan. Television stations largely echo the government’s opinions, but the use of online media has been increasing significantly and is harder to control.

Friends of Milli and Hajizade have told me they believe that the case was an attempt to scare other Azeri Internet activists into silence. But when I asked one of them if she thought this was likely to succeed, I got a surprising response.

“People are not afraid anymore.They are proud of Milli and Hajizade and want to continue everything,” she replied. “The current spirit among young people fighting for democracy and liberty is that this is not the end but a great beginning.”

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.