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Today, a Baku court sentenced Mukhtarli to three months pre-trial detention on charges of smuggling, resisting arrest, and illegal border crossing. Prior to that, on the night of 29 May 2017, Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani citizen who has been legally residing in Tbilisi, Georgia, since 2015, was kidnapped by a group of Georgian speaking men in Tbilisi. He was then illegally taken across the border to Azerbaijan, and shortly after brought to an Azerbaijani border checkpoint in Balakan district at about 23.00 local time on 29 May. There, he was told by the border police that he had illegally crossed the border, and someone planted €10,000 on him. Furthermore, Mukhtarli reported ill-treatment by his assailants..
Mukhtarli moved to Tbilisi in 2015 to escape prosecution from the increasingly authoritarian regime in Baku. With space for civil society continuously shrinking in Azerbaijan, many local journalists and human rights defenders have relocated to Georgia to continue their legitimate work. Prior to abduction, Mukhtarli reported that he was under surveillance to both the Georgian authorities and the media, but the Georgian authorities failed to provide protection for him.
“We are in shock by this appalling act of Azerbaijani regime, which has gone so far to kidnap and smuggle their critic through the border in order to throw him in jail”, IRFS CEO Emin Huseynov said.
“One could imagine this act might have been committed by a criminal gang, but in fact, it has been orchestrated by the regime whose top level officials enjoy shaking hands with European and North American leaders. A journalist is being smuggled from one Council of Europe state to another, from one European Union partner to another. This is unacceptable. Human rights and people’s freedom may not be neglected by Azerbaijan’s partners”, Huseynov highlighted.
Azerbaijani police have physically attacked Mukhtarli on multiple occasions inside of Azerbaijan despite identifying himself as a journalist. Like many others, Mukhtarli had to seek refuge in the neighboring Georgia to be able to continue his robust journalism.
This is not an isolated attack but a coordinated effort. Female opposition leader Gozel Bayramli was arrested immediately after entering Azerbaijan on her way back from Georgia, activist Dashgin Agalarov is being deported, and now Mukhtarli has been illegally kidnapped from Georgia, the one thing they all have in common is that all these individuals have been featured in a smear campaign in the state controlled media. The government has followed the media led propaganda with a coordinated effort against all Azerbaijanis who are critical of the Aliyev regime and live in Tbilisi.
IRFS welcomes the fact that President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, reacted to the case with a comment that “disappearance of the person is a serious challenge for our statehood and sovereignty”.
However, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Georgia must guarantee the safety and a free environment for civil society and human rights defenders. As an immediate first step, the government of Georgia must launch a full investigation into the kidnapping of Afghan Mukhtarli and demand that the Azerbaijani authorities immediately release him and allow his return to Tbilisi.