An Azerbaijan blogger who studied political science in the United States is sitting in a prison cell in his home country for what family and professors say was an act of free speech.
Adnan Hajizada, 26, was arrested on July 8 with Emin Milli, 30, in Baku, Azerbaijan, accused of hooliganism in an alleged attack on two men at an outdoor restaurant. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.
A court hearing for the University of Richmond alumnus is expected to begin on Sept. 8. But Hajizada and Milli say the real reason for the arrest was that they were being critical of the Azeri authorities, and the two men attacked them. They say they were arrested when they reported the incident to authorities.
Hikmet Hajizada, Adnan's father, told the University of Richmond's Collegian that his son, who graduated from the college in 2005, was arrested for exercising his "freedom of expression" and his political views. While freedom of the press exists in Azerbaijan — a tiny, oil-rich country sandwiched between Russia and Iran — Hikmet Hajizada said it can lead to trouble.
"You can say what you like, but you can be prosecuted for it," he told the paper. "It depends entirely on who is in power, and you are not protected from this prosecution."
Hajizada said his son has not complained of poor treatment prior to his next court proceeding on Sept. 8, a date apparently confirmed with a video statement produced by his friends.
In the video, Hajizada, a blogger for the Ol! Youth Movement in Azerbaijan, wears a donkey suit as he mocks the government's reported payment of exorbitant fees to import donkeys.
Several supporters of Hajizada and Milli have posted videos demanding their release, saying they have been targeted for their online activism.
Professor Vincent Wang, chairman of the University of Richmond's political science department, is one of 18 school officials who sent letters to Virginia congressional leaders and Azerbaijan's president protesting the arrests, which he said he found "very troubling."
"Some of our alumni first called to our attention about his arrest and we thought about two things: the fate of one of our former students and the deteriorating human rights condition in Azerbaijan," Wang said Wednesday.
"We find the circumstances of their beating and their arrest very troubling, and we don't know whether this is part of a general crackdown on freedom of expression in that country."
Wang said Azerbaijan appears to be "tightening up the space for political expression," leaving less room for alternative ideas from young individuals who are becoming increasingly Westernized and Web-savvy.
Hajizada graduated with a degree in political science, and his time at Richmond likely influenced his activism halfway across the globe, Wang said.
Darby Holladay, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the United States remains concerned about the arrest and detention of both men.
"Our embassy has been raising these concerns since the day of their arrest," Holladay told FOXNews.com. "We've urged the government of Azerbaijan to ensure due process and to provide medical care. The United States remains committed to working with the government and the people of Azerbaijan to encourage freedom of speech and freedom of association, which we view as essential elements of a democratic society."