ARTICLE 19 condemns the sentencing of freelance investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to three months in pre-trial detention by an Azerbaijani court and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
Mukhtarli, who has been living in exile in Tbilisi with his wife and daughter since January 2015 following harassment by the Azerbaijani authorities, was reported missing in Georgia on the evening of 29 May. At 6pm yesterday evening Mukhtarli’s lawyer, Neymat Kerimli, reported that he had been taken to the headquarters of Azerbaijan’s State Border Service in Baku. The Georgian authorities have opened an investigation into Mukhtarli’s “illegal detention”.
“The charges brought by the Azerbaijani authorities against Mukhtarli are completely groundless, representing a clear attempt to silence him for his critical reporting” said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. “It is particularly worrying that he was abducted from Georgia, where he was legally resident: it is essential that the Georgian authorities guarantee the protection of Azerbaijani dissidents residing in the country.”
On 29 May, Mukhtarli was returning home in Tbilisi following a meal with a friend when he disappeared. His wife, Leyla Mustafaeva, also a journalist, said that her husband called her when he was approaching the house but never arrived. Mustafaeva contacted the Georgian police who instigated a nationwide search for Mukhtarli, she continued to try to call him on his mobile phone, however towards 7pm it appeared no longer to be working.
On the evening of 30 May, Mukhtarli made a short phone call to his lawyer, Neymat Kerimli, to tell him that he was in police custody in Baku. Elchin Sadigov, another lawyer working on Mukhtarli’s case, went to meet with the journalist at the headquarters of the State Border Service in Baku where he was being held. Sadigov told Meydan TV, a critical TV channel operating in exile from Berlin, that Mukhtarli’s face was bruised that that he believed one of his ribs was broken. Mukhtarli told Kerimli and Sadigov that on the evening of 29 May he had been forced into a car in Tbilisi, hooded and beaten, and taken to the Georgian border with Azerbaijan. Before crossing the border, 10,000 Euros were placed in Mukhtarli’s pocket and he was taken to a closed border pass zone and photographed to make it look like he was trespassing there, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
On arrival in Baku he was charged under Article 318.1 (“illegal border crossing”) and Article 206.1 (“smuggling”) of Azerbaijan’s Criminal Code. Today, following a closed hearing at the Investigative Unit of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan an additional charge under Article 315.2 (“violence against police authority”) was raised against him. The Azerbaijani authorities also claim that he was in possession of 10,000 Euros discovered during a police search. He has been sentenced to three months’ pre-trial detention.
Mukhtarli is well known for his reporting critical of the Azerbaijani authorities. He fled Azerbaijan with his family in 2014 after receiving threats over his investigative reports on corruption in the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists had been investigating the assets of Azerbaijan’s first family held in Georgia in recent months. Since his arrival in Tbilisi, Mukhtarli has been open in his criticism of the persecution of Azerbaijani activists and journalists in exile in Georgia, many of which were accused of being members of an “anti-Azerbaijani cell” in the country in an article published recently by pro-regime website Haqqin.az. Following the publication of the Haqqin.az article on 4 May, a number of those individuals mentioned have been arrested or detained and in an Open Democracy article last week, Mukhtarli is quoted as being concerned that other political dissidents in Tbilisi could meet the same fate. Both Mukhtarli and his wife had noticed individuals following them in recent weeks and had received photos of their daily activities left on their doorstep.
“Mukhtarli’s detention is the latest of a series of arrests of human rights defenders, activists and journalists in Azerbaijan,” said Katie Morris. “The fact that Mukhtarli was abducted on Georgian territory and forcibly removed to face charges in Azerbaijan represents an extremely worrying evolution of this trend and all circumstances of this case should be fully investigated.”
ARTICLE 19 is extremely concerned that Mukhtarli’s abduction represents an escalation in the threat to Azerbaijani human rights defenders in exile in Tbilisi and urges the Georgian government to take urgent steps to ensure their protection.
Since April 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities have launched a new wave of harassment against the few independent media outlets and journalists still left in the country and Azerbaijan is now ranked 162 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ ‘2017 World Press Freedom Index’ and rated ‘Not Free’ in Freedom House’s ‘Freedom of the Press 2017’ report. Detentions of government critics, including journalists and human rights defenders, continued throughout 2016 and 2017, as Azerbaijani authorities used a range of false, politically motivated criminal charges to make arrests.
Mehman Huseynov, a journalist well known for his work on government corruption, and chairman of the country’s leading freedom of expression group, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, was sentenced on 6 March 2017 to two years in jail on defamation charges. The lawsuit was brought by the chief of police in Baku’s Nasimi District after Huseynov publicly spoke out about his torture by district officers in January 2017. Huseynov was immediately taken into custody directly from the courtroom.
Like Mukhtarli, fearing similar arrest, a number of independent journalists and human rights defenders have fled abroad. However, the Azerbaijani authorities have continued to persecute them abroad, including by harassing family members. Shortly after giving a speech at the European Parliament on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan on 6 February 2017, Emin Milli, head of Meydan TV, reported to German Police receiving threats of physical violence from the Azerbaijani authorities. On 22 February 2017 the brother, Dadashov Khanlar, and nephew, Zeynalov Sabuhi, of Netherlands-based blogger, Ordukhan Teymurkhan, known for his criticism of the Aliyevs, were sentenced to 30 days detention on entirely bogus charges of disobeying police orders. However, Mukhtarli’s abduction represents an escalation in the Azerbaijani government’s targeting of individuals in exile.
ARTICLE 19 reiterates its call to the Azerbaijani government to withdraw the charges made against Mukhtarli and release him unconditionally with immediate effect. The Azerbaijani authorities should also refrain from further harassment of journalists and human rights defenders, and immediately and unconditionally release all others held in the country on false, politically-motivated charges.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Georgian authorities to fully investigate the circumstances of Afgan Mukhtarli’s abduction on Georgian territory, and to take immediate steps to protect the rights of other journalists and human rights defenders in exile in the country.