A court in Azerbaijan sentenced two bloggers to prison Wednesday for a fight in a restaurant, but the defendants say the charges were a pretext to punish them for political dissent.
The U.S. swiftly condemned the court decision, calling it "a step backwards for Azerbaijan's progress towards democratic reform."
Emin Abdullayev and Adnan Hadzhizade were convicted of hooliganism for a fight authorities say they started in a restaurant in Baku, the capital, in July. A court sentenced Abdullayev on Wednesday to two years and two and Hadzhizade to two and a half years.
Abdullayev, an opposition youth activist who runs an Internet TV program under the name of Milli, told the court there was no "higher honor than being punished for one's ideals."
Hadzhizade is a video blogger and opposition group member.
Their lawyers said the charges were politically motivated and announced plans to appeal.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly sharply criticized the ruling.
"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," Kelly said. "We hope the events of the past four months do not signal a trend in the further erosion of free speech rights in Azerbaijan."
He called for a "fair, timely, and transparent" appeal process.
Independent media and opposition parties have faced persistent pressure in the oil-rich former Soviet republic under President Ilham Aliyev and his predecessor, his late father Geidar Aliyev.
The U.S. has been courting Azerbaijan because of its Caspian Sea oil riches and strategic location between Russia and Iran, but has repeatedly expressed concern over media rights and the treatment of the opposition.