Last week the two Azerbaijan bloggers we blogged about, were convicted for hooliganism. Despite international pressure they were sentenced to an outrageous two and two and a half years in jail. (Go here for an excellent link list with various reactions and here if you want to take action.)
The verdict fits the impression that the Azerbaijan regime is closing its fist on free speech and free press. This has also been noticed by several international organizations. The OSCE and the Council of Europe critisized the verdict heavily, expressing fear that this could become a trend (more journalists are jailed in Azerbaijan), critisizing the legal procedures of this case and expressing doubt on the independence of the police and judges. Although the OSCE and the Council of Europe don’t have any authority to sanction or punish (they gather information and advise), their influence is considerable.
A different reaction can be heard from the EU. It expresses concern with respect to the verdict, regrets that the trial was unfair and believes that it might undermine the freedom of expression. The EU further offers Azerbaijan its help in developing democratic institutions and offering to extend its bilateral relation.
For my taste this is really far too weak: concern and regret are fine, but not enough and not strong enough: the EU should stand up for essential values like freedom of speech and free press. The EU is thinking strategically here, and that mostly means balancing between two evils: if it is too harsh in its critique, the fear is that Azerbaijan will stop listening and close the oil tap for EU consumers. However when the reaction is rather mild (as it is now) it would seem it is acting weakly, and exchanging human rights and freedom of press for oil.
A more powerful statement can be heard from the US: “This court decision is a step backwards for Azerbaijan’s progress towards democratic reform. 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.” and “(t)he United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Azerbaijan to seek progress on democratic reforms, including on freedom of expression and association.”
Compared to the EU statement, the US is more concrete and outspoken in its critique, and more direct and commited in what should happen in the future. Ofcourse this is not so strange: it’s not the backyard of the US anymore since August 2008 and the US is securing it’s access to natural resources elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t need Azerbaijan the way the EU needs it, although it’s in the interest of all parties that the Caucasus stays more or less stable. Therefore: as long as Azerbaijan oil keeps flowing this way, the doggies will only show their teeth.