Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called again for the immediate release of Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist who has completed his third month in detention since his abduction in neighbouring Georgia and forcible return to Azerbaijan. He is still being held although now in very poor health.
RSF also reiterated its condemnation of Azerbaijan’s persecution of independent journalists like Mukhtarli, who was living in exile in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, when kidnapped on 29 May.
According to officials at the prison where Mukhtarli is detained, he is in the best of health despite being diabetic. But his lawyers and wife say he has lost 21 kilos since his abduction, has high blood pressure and was denied access to medicine for a long time. He has been refused family visits several times and, despite everything, a court in Baku has just extended his provisional detention until 30 October.
“Afgan Mukhtarli’s detention is a disgrace for both Azerbaijan and Georgia,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Not only is no one able to explain how it began, but now it is being extended in defiance of the most elementary humanitarian principles.”
“We again appeal to the Azerbaijani authorities to free this journalist at once and to drop the trumped-up charges brought against him. And the Georgian authorities must shed all possible light on how he came to be abducted.”
An investigative journalist and activist, Mukhtarli had been living in exile in Georgia since 2015. He was grabbed near his Tbilisi home on the evening of 29 May, bundled into a car, tied up and beaten. He says his abductors wore Georgian criminal police uniforms. The next day his family learned that he was in the custody of the Azerbaijani border police.
According to the Azerbaijani government’s account, Mukhtarli was arrested near the border with 10,000 euros in his pockets. He is charged with contraband, crossing the border illegally and refusing to comply with instructions from the police. He rejects all the charges.
In Georgia, an investigation into Mukhtarli’s “illegal detention” has drawn a blank although several members of the Georgian security services were fired. Surveillance camera recordings near the scene of the abduction were mysteriously tampered with.
Mukhtarli’s wife, Leila Mustafayeva, has criticized the lack of progress and has accused the Georgian authorities of not conducting a serious investigation. In June, members of the European Parliament called for Mukhtarli’s immediate release and the withdrawal of all charges.
Mukhtarli worked for IWPR and the Meydan TV independent news website, often writing about high-level government corruption in Azerbaijan. Shortly before his abduction, he said he was being closely watched and that he was concerned for his safety and the safety other Azerbaijani dissidents in Georgia.
The Azerbaijani authorities have done everything possible to crush media pluralism in recent years. The most outspoken media outlets have all been throttled financially or forcibly closed. Access to their websites is blocked.
The last independent outlet, the Turan news agency, is now being targeted. Its director, Mehman Aliyev, was arrested on 24 August and has been placed in pre-trial detention for three months. Crippled by judicial proceedings, Turan has announced that it will suspend all activities from 1 September onwards.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Its president, Ilham Aliyev, is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators.