New York, May 30, 2017--Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release freelance journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and allow him to return to neighboring Georgia, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Mukhtarli, whose wife reported him missing from their home in Tbilisi, Georgia, last night, is being held at a detention center in Baku, Azerbaijan, regional and local media reported.
Mukhtarli, who has contributed to the Berlin-based independent news outlet Meydan TV and the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, fled to Georgia from Azerbaijan in 2014 after receiving threats over his investigative reporting on corruption in the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. Before he disappeared, Mukhtarli was investigating the assets of Azerbaijan's first family in Georgia, according to his colleague and independent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
Leyla Mustafayeva told journalists in Tbilisi today that her husband, Mukhtarli, called her at around 7 p.m. last night to say he was on his way home from meeting colleagues in the Georgian capital, but never arrived. She said she reported him missing to the Georgian police. The independent Azeri news agency Turan later reported that the Azerbaijani border service department detained Mukhtarli.
The journalist's lawyer, Elchin Sadygov, told CPJ that Mukhtarli was abducted from Tbilisi and forcefully brought to Azerbaijan. "He was beaten, has a broken nose, bruises all over his head and right eye, his rib may be broken," said Sadygov, who visited Mukhtarli in the detention center. The journalist is charged with illegally crossing the border and contraband, according to Sadygov, who said that Mukhtarli told him that the police planted €10,000 ($11,200) in his pocket while he was unconscious.
Georgia's Interior Ministry said it is investigating the alleged unlawful imprisonment of Mukhtarli, according to reports. CPJ was unable to determine the journalist's legal status in Georgia.
"Georgian authorities should demand that Azerbaijan immediately release Afgan Mukhtarli and allow him to return to Tiblisi," said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. "Azerbaijan's crackdown on independent reporting has forced many journalists into exile. Forcefully returning them to Azerbaijan is a further sign of the country's hostile behavior to the press."
Mukhtarli's wife said at the press conference that the journalist had been surveilled in recent weeks but did not specify who she suspected was behind it. In a May 18 interview with independent online news outlet JAMnews, Mukhtarli said he and his wife, who is a journalist and an activist, were both under surveillance. "They openly follow us and then leave the photos of what [we] were doing during the day at [our] doorstep," he said. Mukhtarli also said in the report about Azeri exiles that Georgian authorities obstructed the work of exiled Azerbaijani activists and journalists, including his wife, by not extending residence permits. Some Azeri activists were denied political asylum in Georgia, according to the JAMnews report.
Mukhtarli and Mustafayeva were criticized along with several other exiled Azeri activists in a May 4, 2017 article published on Haqqin, a pro-government Azerbaijani news website that portrayed Tbilisi as a nest of anti-Azerbaijani subversion. Two other activists mentioned in the article, Farman Jeyranli and Gozal Bayramli, were arrested by authorities in Georgia on May 23 and May 25, respectively, according to media reports. Bayramli is in detention in Azerbaijan on charges of contraband, Sadygov said. CPJ was unable to determine the status of Jeyranli.