WASHINGTON, D.C. — Messages of protest have overwhelmed social networking sites following the arrests of activist bloggers Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, but Friday the outcries transcended the digital world and arose on the streets outside the Azerbaijani Embassy.
Elmar Chakhtakhtinski, organizer of “Rally in support of Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli” and member of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy (AZAD), led a group of roughly 30 protesters, mostly native Azerbaijanis. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., they advocated for the youths’ release, pleading the prisoners’ right to a fair trial and touting an overall message that called for the end of suppression of free speech in Azerbaijan.
Chants of “Free Adnan and Milli,” “Hey, ho, let them go,” “Stop injustice” and “Long live Democracy” filled the street as drivers-by honked in response to a sign that read “Honk for freedom.” Protesters waved Azeri and American flags, wore T-shirts that read “Freedom of Assembly” and “Freedom of Speech” while they held signs portraying Adnan and Milli.
Azar Mammadov, a 28-year-old Azeri from Newark, N.J., filmed the protest for a video he planned to post on YouTube and distribute to media outlets. Mammadov met Hajizada and Milli briefly when he was in Baku, the nation’s capital, a couple months ago.
“I feel it is our responsibility to raise our voices for those who are unable,” he said, adding that he had prepared most of the signs for the rally.
Rain showers from Hurricane Danny swept through the city, but subsided in time for the rally. Brief showers picked up afterward.
“The weather is pro-Democracy too,” said Mai-Anh Tran, a 2007 University of Richmond graduate and friend of Hajizada.
Two other Richmond alumni — Yusuf Makhkamov and Madhan Rajan, former roommates of Hajizada — came to the rally to offer their support.
“People [at Richmond] do a lot of volunteering, but to have someone in our generation trying so hard — the least we can do is come and show we support their effort,” Tran said.
Chakhtakhtinski held a megaphone while he read a letter outlining the protesters’ pleas. They submitted the document after the rally to the embassy officials, who declined to comment about the arrests or the protest.
Hajizada and Milli’s trial is set for Sept. 4, and they face a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison. Authorities charged the youths with hooliganism and added a charge Monday for deliberate infliction of serious damage to health.
“No hope exists for impartial hearing unless the international pressure makes the government change its mind,” Chakhtakhtinski said. “That is why it is important to accelerate the pressure now, before the hearing.”
Authorities arrested the activists July 8, after they were involved in a fight with two men at a restaurant in Baku. Since graduation, Rajan has kept in touch with Hajizada through Facebook.
“They say what he did was unlawful,” Rajan said, “but after knowing him for four years I know he isn’t the type of person to get into a fight. He was always a peaceful person.”
Protesters in Washington said the arrest was based on the youths’ criticisms of the government and was part of a larger suppression of free speech on the Internet. Hajizada, a 2005 Richmond graduate, was a blogger for the Ol! Youth Movement, which uses Internet tools to mobilize support for its pro-democracy messages against what they see as an increasingly authoritarian Azeri government.
Journalists and civic activists are routinely beaten, arrested, exiled, blackmailed and even murdered in Azerbaijan, protesters said. No news about Hajizada and Milli has circulated in the country because the government has taken over all newspapers, radio and television stations as well as the most widely read Web sites.
“The whole world is screaming and they aren’t saying anything,” said one protester, who declined to give her name for fears about her safety. “If they go to prison, democracy in Azerbaijan will end for five to 10 years because people will be too afraid.”
The only outlet for free speech is to have a small Web site.
One of Hajizada and Milli’s most recent video blog posts satirizes the exorbitant prices the government spent to import donkeys from Germany. Protesters at the rally wore donkey masks as an allusion to the video.
The videos were typical of Hajizada and showed him at his best — quirky and funny — his former roommates said. They said he enjoyed shows such as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
The Azerbaijani government released a statement on July 14 discouraging intervention by the international community and charged that Hajizada and Milli were arrested under “ordinary acts of hooliganism.” Vusal Saleh Mammadov and Babek Islam Huseynov, the men with whom Hajizada and Milli were fighting, issued a statement saying that loud swearing from the activists led to a heated debate that escalated to a fight.
Mammadov and Huseynov have not been arrested, and an Azeri judge rejected Hajizada and Milli’s Aug. 10 appeal. Protesters said they thought the government or a pro-government group probably sent the men who attacked the youths.
“They got a wake-up call from the government,” said Max, a protester who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. “This is a textbook story of what happens with authoritarian governments. They want to silence these youths but they shouldn’t because free speech is their birthright.”
Chakhtakhtinski said: “Although the government charged Adnan and Emin with a rather minor ‘hooliganism’ charge, they are held without contact to anybody except for their lawyers. All hearings they had were closed. It is unprecedented to have such secrecy in a case that does not involve any national security or high organized crime or terrorism elements.”
Multiple Facebook, Google and Yahoo groups have emerged in response to the arrest — part of efforts to launch a campaign in support of the activists. Chakhtakhtinski invited participants to the rally through Facebook and YouTube.
Chakhtakhtinski, born and raised in Azerbaijan, moved to the United States 15 years ago and works in Washington as a financial analyst. He became involved in Azerbaijani political affairs only last year, he said, when he went to visit his homeland for the first time in eight years.
“When I went there, I was shocked on how the socio-political conditions deteriorated and at the scale of oppression and injustice regular people suffer in Azerbaijan at the hands of the corrupt government,” he said.
The trip prompted him to become involved in AZAD, an American activist organization whose mission is to promote democratic values among Azerbaijani-Americans and the broader U.S. public.
Chakhtakhtinski knew Milli from working with him on campaigns to the U.S. Congress regarding the suppression of freedoms in Azerbaijan.
The group saw Hajizada and Milli as representatives for a greater struggle against the Azeri government’s violations of human rights.
“A lot of us are not happy about what’s going in Azerbaijan, but we can’t think of a way out,” said a 26-year-old female protester who declined to have her name published because she feared for her safety. “We are not dealing with a good democracy.
“We are dealing with a dictatorship. People are afraid. There is no one in my country who can help them. There are only ones who are outside of the country.”
At the University of Richmond, 17 professors sent letters to Virginia congressional leaders, Azerbaijan’s president and its U.S. ambassador in support of Hajizada and Milli.
“I am very inspired by the overwhelming support of the University of Richmond, who picked up this case, spread the message and created the movement for the release of Adnan and Emin,” Chakhtakhtinski said. “That creates hope that the cause of democracy and freedom is not lost in Azerbaijan.”
Kimberly Leonard, a former Collegian staff writer and online managing editor, reported from Washington, D.C. She works as an intern at Stateline.org, a nonprofit news Web site that covers state government and politics.
Contact The Collegian’s editor in chief at email@example.com