New York, March 16, 2021 – French authorities should thoroughly investigate the brutal knife attack on exiled Azerbaijani video blogger Mahammad Mirzali, find the perpetrators, and ensure that they are held to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On March 14, Mirzali, who runs the Made in Azerbaijan YouTube video blog, was walking in downtown Nantes, the city in western France where he lives in exile, when six men approached him and started punching him and stabbing him with knives in his arms, hands, legs, neck, and face, according to news reports in Caucasus and Azerbaijan-focused outlets. The reports also said that the attackers attempted to cut out his tongue. Regional French news outlet Ouest France reported on the incident without naming Mirzali.
Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist in exile in Germany and a friend of the blogger who spoke with CPJ via phone, confirmed the details of the attack. He said he was able to talk to Mirzali on the phone from the hospital, and that the journalist suffered 16 to 17 knife wounds and was in critical condition. He said doctors were operating on Mirzali on March 14. CPJ was unable to determine the blogger’s current health status.
“French authorities should swiftly investigate the knife attack on exiled Azerbaijani blogger Mahammad Mirzali, find the perpetrators and those who ordered it, and bring them to justice,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “French authorities must ensure that Mirzali and other exiled bloggers and journalists can exercise their right of free expression without having to fear for their lives.”
According to Mukhtarli, Mirzali called the police when he saw the men approaching him. He said they attacked the blogger until a group of passersby intervened and that by the time police arrived the attackers had already escaped. French police have opened an investigation into the incident, reports said. CPJ submitted a request for comment to the French national police via its official Facebook page, but did not receive an immediate reply.
Mukhtarli believes the attack was an attempt to silence the blogger, whose YouTube channel counts some 265,000 subscribers, and covers topics such as the alleged persecution of oppositional bloggers, journalists, and activists by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, corruption, and other topics. Mukhtarli said Mirzali began the channel in exile; he fled Azerbaijan in 2016 to escape state persecution for his political activism with the opposition party Popular Front of Azerbaijan, according to a report by Meydan.TV, an independent Germany-based news outlet that covers Azerbaijan. Mukhtarli told CPJ that Mirzali is no longer affiliated with the party, but his video blog is oppositional in nature.
The attack follows several other incidents involving the blogger and his family. Earlier this year, an anonymous person tried to blackmail Mirzali via WhatsApp, threatening to publish intimate photos of the blogger’s sister and her husband if he didn’t stop his blogging, according to a report by the independent Caucasus-focused news website Jam News, a post on Mirzali’s Twitter account, and Mukhtarli. After Mirzali refused to comply, the videos were made public, according to a report by Azerbaijan Internet Watch, an online platform tracking internet censorship and surveillance in Azerbaijan.
In October 2020, unknown people shot at Mirzali in Nantes, and he received a surface wound in his arm, according to a report by Caucasus-focused outlet Kavkazsky Uzel and Mukhtarli.
In January 2018, authorities in Azerbaijan arrested Mirzali’s father Fazil Mirzaliyev and his brother-in-law Elman Agayev, according to news reports and a report by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a local Azerbaijani nongovernmental organization. During the arrest, law enforcement officers told the two men to make Mirzali stop his critical blogging, according to those reports. Mirzali’s father was released after one day and his brother-in-law was released after six, reports said.
CPJ sent a request for comment to the French Ministry of Interior via its official webpage but did not receive a response. In a March 19 letter received after this alert was published, Fazil Guliev, deputy minister at the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan, said that Mirzali’s relatives in Azerbaijan were not being persecuted by the state, and that Azerbaijani authorities had nothing to do with the attack on Mirzali in France.
Editor’s note: The 10th paragraph has been updated with a response from Fazil Guliev, deputy minister at the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan. Also in the 10th paragraph, the date of the deputy minister’s letter has been corrected.