All hail the Sluggers! Now let's free the bloggers!

I hope to get along to the Slugger Awards tomorrow evening in Belfast. This is the (second) annual gathering of Northern Ireland's political bloggers, politicians, campaigners and journalists to celebrate the sometimes uneasy coming together of online media and offline politics.

Slugger O'Toole is the granddaddy of Northern Ireland political blogs and tries to promote what it calls 'conversational politics', although it just as often resembles all-in wrestling. When hardline loyalist meets hardline republican in the Slugger comments zone, you can imagine that the virtual fur sometimes flies. Of course, it's much worse when bloggers from within the tribe sharpen their keyboards and aim at each other. And that's nothing compared to when the politicos turn on those who reject their labels…

But that's all right. Nobody gets locked up or hurt (beyond a few bruised feelings). And Slugger-in-chief, Mick Fealty, is always at hand with his yellow and red cards should commenters stoop to playing 'man not ball'.

Of course, in some countries, the bloggers do get locked up and bruised for real. The technology may have moved on, but the authoritarian impulses of some governments hasn't shifted from when Amnesty was first set up in 1961 to secure 'amnesty' for those imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political or religious beliefs.

There's Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, prevented last month from travelling to New York to receive an international journalism award.  Her Generation Y blog casts a cold eye on daily life in Cuba.

How about Egyptian blogger Karim Amer who, back in 2007, was detained arbitrarily for his blogged criticisms of Islam and President Mubarak. He was given four years in prison. There, he was given a kicking and stuck in solitary confinement for a week. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and, in March this year, the UN Human Rights Council gave heavyweight backing to his case.

Meanwhile, prominent blogger Philip Rizk was arrested in Cairo in February while taking part in a peaceful march to express solidarity with civilians affected by the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

In September last year Moroccan blogger Mohamed Erraji was jailed for two years for "lack of respect for the king". Thankfully this was overturned on appeal, although he should never have been charged in the first place.

And this summer Vietnamese bloggers Bui Thanh Hieu and Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh were arrested – the authorities presumably didn't like their criticising business deals and border issues relating to China, including a controversial bauxite mining operation in the Central Highlands.

As recently as November 12 two Azerbaijani bloggers were jailed after using Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and blogging to criticise the country's government.

Blogging youth activists Emin Abdullayev (blogger name Emin Milli) and Adnan Hajizade were sentenced to 30 and 24 months' imprisonment respectively on charges of "hooliganism" and "inflicting minor bodily harm."

Among their apparent offences was this satirical YouTube video featuring a donkey giving a press conference in Azerbaijan (official accounts show that the government apparently paid $82,000 for two donkeys). During one of the court hearings, six of the bloggers’ supporters were reportedly detained because they were wearing T-shirts that said "I am also a hooligan".

Abdullayev and Hajizade have been adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and we will campaign for their immediate and unconditional release.

Maybe Slugger O'Toole and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland blogosphere would like to adopt their cases too and chip in with some Freedom 2.0 campaigning. Azerbaijani bloggers have already tried to deploy the tools of social networking to build a campaign for the two and I'm sure they would really appreciate some outside help.

You can email an appeal for the release of the bloggers to the President of the Azerbaijan Republic, President Ilham Aliyev at president@gov.az

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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