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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Donkeys and Protests No Laughing Matter

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The verdict, when it came, was no surprise. Courts in Azerbaijan are rarely sympathetic to democracy campaigners, and the case of two detained Internet activists was no exception. Nevertheless, the mood among the two young activists’ friends who had gathered outside the appeals court in Baku last week was despondent after their request for release was rejected. A few supporters sang the national anthem defiantly, but others wept as they drifted away.

Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli were arrested for hooliganism and ordered held for two months of pretrial detention after allegedly starting a fight in a restaurant, although they insist that they were actually the victims of a politically motivated assault. The duo was at the forefront of a circle of middle-class youth activists who have been using blogs and social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to spread their message and circumvent government control over the Azeri media.

“They are both very popular. They have liberal, Western values, and they were doing something which is completely new for Azerbaijan,” one of their friends told me. Some people have suggested that it might not be a coincidence that they were arrested not long after Hajizada’s most recent satirical video, which lampooned the authorities through the words of a talking donkey, was uploaded onto YouTube. “This regime has no sense of humor,” another supporter said. “When they are mocked, they become very offended.”

The case follows an unexpected resurgence of youth activism in Azerbaijan. Some young people were outraged when the authorities refused to hold an official commemoration for students who were killed when a gunman ran amok at a Baku college in April. A crowd of youths took to the streets in fury, in a country where demonstrations are usually suppressed with cold efficiency.

Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Liberty’s Azeri service, which was forced off the airwaves this year, suggests that the arrests were intended to intimidate an emerging social movement. “First, opposition political parties were marginalized, then they targeted independent media and radio stations, then NGOs, and now youth groups and Internet activists,” she told me.

Poignantly, Milli’s last message on Twitter before he was detained quoted the words of a Soviet-era Azeri dissident: “Without sacrifices, there isn’t any freedom,” it read. “Therefore, I and people like me have to be arrested.”

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.