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Independent Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli speaks in Baku, Azerbaijan ,,on Sunday, March 2, 2014. Mukhtarli spoke to CPJ after his release from prison in Azerbaijan on March 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)

Journalist Afgan Mukhtarli: ‘Azerbaijani prisoners are facing death under coronavirus quarantine’

By Gulnoza Said, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator on March 24, 2020 4:48 PM ET

Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was released from prison on March 17, 2020, after nearly three years in jail, and flown to Berlin, where he was reunited with his wife and daughter. He served half of his six-year sentence on charges that Azerbaijani authorities brought in retaliation for his investigative reporting, as CPJ research shows.

Speaking to CPJ over the phone from Berlin, Mukhtarli talked about his release, conditions in Azerbaijan’s prisons--including amid the coronavirus outbreak--and his plans for the future. His replies have been edited for length and clarity.

Afgan, we were very happy to learn that you had been set free and allowed to leave Azerbaijan. When did you first learn about your upcoming release?

I didn’t know about the court hearing on March 17 until I was brought to the courtroom. My lawyers did not know about it. The hearing lasted for about 15 minutes which means everything was prepared in advance. They only read the verdict. My release on that day [March 17] came as a surprise although I had known they would release me because I was summoned to a “chat” with prison administration several times in the past five months. They told me I could be released only if I did not stay in Azerbaijan.

Do you know the reason behind their decision to let you go?

There has been a lot of international pressure on the authorities in Azerbaijan about my case. I know you [at CPJ] and other press freedom organizations were defending me and calling for my release. I am very grateful. I also know that members of the European Parliament and [Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights] Dunja Mijatovic called for my release. [Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of CoE Sunna] Aevarsdottir came to Azerbaijan [in September 2019]. German government was involved. So I think it was the help from many different parties that got me free. And I want to thank everybody.

We know that there are several other journalists still imprisoned for their work in Azerbaijan. What was it like to be a political prisoner in Azerbaijani jail? How did the prison guards and administration treat you?

I cannot say that the treatment I got from the prison guards was very bad, they didn’t treat me differently from other inmates. But it is the prison conditions in general that I am worried about. There are no books allowed, no visitations except for close family. Items of personal hygiene can be brought only by family.

It means that if any inmate is infected with coronavirus, others can hardly be spared. Is that correct? [Editor’s note: Azerbaijan reported the first death from coronavirus on March 12, and a quarantine was introduced on March 24.]

Absolutely. Imagine 170 people in close proximity with each other in the same room. The prison used to be an old barrack that was turned into jail. Inmates sleep on bunk beds that are placed close to each other. The room is packed. There is no hot water. We showered in lukewarm water once a week. No soaps. The prison food is so bad we had to rely on our families to deliver food. Now, the prisons are under quarantine. It means family visits and package deliveries have been suspended indefinitely. That, in turn, means neither soaps nor medicine or food can be brought in. If anybody catches a coronavirus, every prisoner will have it. And nobody will care to provide them with proper medical care. I am afraid inmates are facing death if the epidemic makes its way to prisons. Even if there are no cases of coronavirus in prison, the inmates will start dying of starvation very soon. The situation is extremely hard.

Afgan, now that you are out of harm’s way, have you thought about what you want to do next?

I was a journalist and I will continue being a journalist. I will continue investigative reporting, looking into corruption in Azerbaijan and reporting for Azerbaijani media.

Thank you for talking to me. Good luck.

CPJ’s safety advisory for journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak is available here in English and more than a dozen other languages. Additional CPJ coverage of the coronavirus, journalist safety, and press freedom can be found here.