Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on Georgian authorities to explain how Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist living in exile in Georgia, was abducted and taken back to neighboring Azerbaijan, and calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to free him at once.
In a disturbing development for the dozens of other Azerbaijani dissidents living in Georgia, Mukhtarli resurfaced yesterday in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, in the custody of Azerbaijan’s state border agency. He had gone missing in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the previous evening after leaving colleagues and setting off for his nearby Tbilisi home.
Georgian authorities must explain
“The Georgian authorities must immediately explain what happened to Afgan Mukhtarli and provide security guarantees for the other Azerbaijani exiles in Georgia,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Whether Mukhtarli was kidnapped by foreign operatives or whether the Georgian security forces were accomplices to the Azerbaijani regime’s persecution of its critics, this is a very grave incident that cannot remain without consequences.”
According to Elchin Sadygov, a lawyer who managed to visit Mukhtarli in detention yesterday evening, he bore the marks of blows to his face and he thought one of his ribs was broken.
Mukhtarli said he was grabbed near his home, bundled into a car, tied up and beaten. His abductors put a bag over his head after they left Tbilisi. They changed car twice and then stuffed 10,000 euros into his pockets at the Azerbaijani border so that he could be charged with smuggling, crossing the border illegally and resisting police.
He said those who abducted him seemed to be Georgians but the passengers in the final two cars spoke Azeri. His lawyer requested that a doctor examine Mukhtarli and that the border post surveillance camera recordings be added to the case file.
Mukhtarli in danger
Bihr added: “We demand the immediate release of Afgan Mukhtarli, who is now exposed to the possibility of torture and mistreatment. Bringing trumped-up charges against independent journalists is standard practice in Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliyev’s regime has yet again just showed that it can cause trouble beyond its borders. It is high time to respond with all the required firmness.”
An investigative journalist and activist, Mukhtarli fled Azerbaijan in 2014 to escape a crackdown on the country’s civil society and had been working for Meydan TV and IWPR from Tbilisi.
He recently told the media that he was being closely watched and that he was concerned for his safety and the safety other Azerbaijani exiles in Georgia. In early May, he was named by an Azerbaijani pro-government website that described Tbilisi as a centre of hostile agitators.
Reacting quickly, Georgian civil society representatives demonstrated today outside government headquarters in Tbilisi to demand explanations. The Georgian interior minister today announced that an investigation had been opened into Mukhtarli’s “illegal abduction” and that it would be raised with the Azerbaijani authorities.
Ranked 64th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Georgia had until recently been regarded as the natural refuge for journalists fleeing persecution in Azerbaijan, which is ranked 162nd.
Not content with crushing all forms of pluralism in Azerbaijan, President Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining critics since 2014. At least 15 journalists, bloggers and media workers are currently detained in connection with the provision of news and information.