Azerbaijan: IWPR Journalist "Abducted"

Concerns are mounting over the fate of IWPR contributor Afgan Mukhtarli after the dissident Azeri journalist was seized in Georgia and taken across the border to custody in Baku.

He now faces charges there of smuggling, crossing the border illegally and violently resisting arrest. A Baku court has committed him to three months of pre-trial detention.

Mukhtarli and his wife Leyla Mustafayeva, also an investigative journalist, had fled Azerbaijan in 2015 amid fears for their safety and were living in Tbilisi.

While in custody, the 43-year-old investigative journalist managed to speak briefly to his lawyer Elchin Sadigov. He described how plain-clothed men who spoke Georgian stopped him near his house in Tbilisi in the evening of May 29 and pushed him into a car.

He was then tied up, driven to the outskirts of the capital and beaten relentlessly before being taken across the border to Azerbaijan. Mukhtarli also told his lawyer that 10,000 Euros were planted in his pockets as they crossed the border so that he could subsequently be charged with trespass and smuggling. 

Sadigov said that Mukhtarli’s nose was broken and he was left badly bruised by the beating and complaining of severe chest pain.

Rights organisations have called for Mukhatarli’s immediate release.

“This is a deeply sinister development in a country known for its long crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders,” said Levan Asatiani, Amnesty International’s campaigner on the South Caucasus. “Afgan Mukhtarli must be immediately and unconditionally released and protected from torture and other ill-treatment. He is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for his work as a journalist.”

The 43-year-old has been a regular contributor to IWPR since early 2014, as well as to other independent media including Meydan TV.  

Although resident outside the country, Mukhtarli continued to write on Azerbaijan’s deteriorating rights situation. His most recent story for IWPR was a piece on the unrest that followed a September 2016 referendum that looks certain to entrench the powers of President Ilham Aliyev.

(See Protests Mark Azerbaijan’s Referendum).

Right organisations have also called on the Georgian authorities to explain their position on Mukhtarli’s disappearance.

Mukhtarli’s and Mustafayeva’s residence permits for Georgia expired in September 2016, and the authorities declined to extend them. However, it was still legal for them to remain living in Georgia, as Azerbaijani citizens have visa-free access to their neighbouring country and can stay there for up to one year.

“It seems that the Georgian authorities were also complicit in Afgan Mukhtarli’s abduction and forced return to Azerbaijan,” Asatiani said. “His family told Amnesty International that he has often been followed by Azerbaijani-speaking men on the streets of Tbilisi, indicating that he has been under surveillance for some time. Georgia must promptly and impartially investigate what happened and hold accountable all those involved in this gruesome operation.”

“Mukhtarli went to Georgia seeking safety, but it seems he was not far enough out of the Azerbaijani government’s clutches,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch.

Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili has called for an investigation, stating that the alleged abduction was a "serious challenge to our statehood and sovereignty".