Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani reporter who fled to Georgia in 2014 after receiving threats related to his work, was abducted in Tbilisi and taken across the border to Azerbaijan in 2017. Authorities accused him of smuggling contraband and in 2018 sentenced him to six years in prison.
The journalist’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, initially reported him missing from their home in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 29, 2017. Mukhtarli surfaced the following day in a detention center in Baku, Azerbaijan, regional and local media reported.
In 2014, Mukhtarli, who has contributed to the Berlin-based independent news outlet Meydan TV and the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, received threats in relation to his investigative reporting on alleged corruption in the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry.
Before his detention, Mukhtarli was investigating the assets of the first family of Azerbaijan in Georgia, according to a Facebook post by his colleague and independent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
Mukhtarli’s wife told journalists during a May 30 press conference in Tbilisi that her husband called her around 7 p.m. the night before to say he was on his way home from meeting a friend, but never returned. Mustafayeva said she reported her husband as missing to the Georgian police early the next morning.
The independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan later reported that the Azerbaijani border service 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 on May 30, 2017.
Azerbaijani authorities charged the journalist with illegally crossing the border and bringing contraband with him, according to Sadygov, who said that Mukhtarli told him that the police planted 10,000 euros ($11,200) in his pocket while he was unconscious. Mukhtarli denies all the charges, the lawyer said.
Mukhtarli’s wife said at the May 30, 2017, press conference that the journalist was under surveillance in the weeks preceding his alleged abduction, but did not specify who she suspected was surveilling him. In a May 18, 2017 interview with the independent online news outlet JAMnews, Mukhtarli said both he and his wife, who is a journalist and an activist, were under surveillance. "They openly follow us, and then leave the photos of what [we] were doing during the day at [our] doorstep," he said.
An Azerbaijani pro-government news site, Haqqin, criticized Mukhtarli and Mustafayeva, along with several other exiled Azerbaijani activists, in a May 4, 2017 article, which portrayed Tbilisi as a nest of anti-Azerbaijani subversives.
Georgia’s prosecutor’s office said in June 2017 that it had launched an investigation into the journalist’s disappearance. On December 20, 2017, Georgia’s then-Prime Minister Georgi Kvirikashvili called the case a “serious failure,” according to Ekho Kavkaza, a local service of the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).The website cited Kvirikashvili as saying that the heads of the counter-intelligence agency and the border police had been dismissed.
As of late 2019, the prosecutor’s office had not responded to CPJ’s request for an update on the investigation.
Mustafayeva on October 11, 2017 told Kavkazsky Uzel that she fled Georgia for Germany out of fear for her safety.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on June 15, 2017, calling for Mukhtarli’s immediate release. In June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights started reviewing Mukhtarli’s complaint as a priority case, according to Meydan TV and Tbilisi-based non-governmental organization Human Rights House Foundation. As of late 2019, the case was still in the review process.
On November 20, 2017, Mukhtarli was transferred to the Sheki detention center some 320 kilometers (approximately 200 miles) from Baku, according to regional media.
On January 12, 2018, a district court sentenced the journalist to six years in prison. On September 18, 2018, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan upheld the verdict, according to media reports. Sadygov told CPJ in September 2018 that the journalist has diabetes, hypertension, and heart palpitations. He has been receiving his diabetes medicine while in prison.
Nemat Kerlimli, a lawyer who is representing the journalist, wrote on Facebook on September 20, 2019 that prison guards forcibly searched him and checked his notes when he visited the journalist. The guards yelled at the lawyer and shoved him when he refused to be searched, he wrote.
The journalist’s wife told CPJ via messaging app on September 22, that Mukhtarli started a hunger strike to protest the mistreatment of his lawyer. He was not taking medications and was at risk of falling into a coma due to his diabetes, Mustafayeva, who posted an update about her husband on Facebook, told CPJ. The journalist ended the hunger strike after the prison administration put him in a solitary confinement on September 23, media reported.
Mukhtarli is detained in prison colony No. 16, near Baku.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Interior did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on Mukhtarli’s case.