Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes the news of investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli’s release from prison in Azerbaijan and his safe arrival in Germany. Mukhtarli was abducted from Georgia in 2017 and brought back to his native country Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to six years in prison in early 2018. On 17 March, a Baku court ordered his release and he was finally reunited with his wife and child in Berlin later that day. RSF had advocated intensely for Mukhtarli’s release ever since his abduction.
"We thank all those who worked tirelessly for Afgan Mukhtarli’s release and departure from Azerbaijan," said RSF Germany’s executive director Christian Mihr, who was among those greeting the journalist upon his arrival at Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport. He also emphasized the importance of working for the release of all other journalists still imprisoned in Azerbaijan. "Afgan Mukhtarli’s release cannot conceal the brutality employed by president Ilham Aliyev against many more journalists who have denounced the regime’s corruption, nepotism and human rights violations. While this case may be unusually dramatic, it is also indicative of the merciless repression of media freedoms in Azerbaijan."
Fled to Georgia after threats and abducted from there
Mukhtarli and his wife, journalist Leyla Mustafayeva, had fled to neighboring Georgia in 2015 after receiving threats in Azerbaijan for their investigations into government corruption. Like many other critics of the Aliyev regime, they were hoping to find safety in Georgia’s liberal-leaning capital Tbilisi.
In the Fall of 2016, Mukhtarli turned to RSF for support after Georgia’s authorities refused to issue a residence permit for his wife, quoting concerns for the country’s safety. On 29 May 2017, Mukhtarli was brutally kidnapped near his Tbilisi home. His abductors stuffed 10,000 euros into his pockets at the Azerbaijani border. On 12 January 2018, a court in Balakan then sentenced Mukhtarli to six years in prison on trumped up charges of smuggling, crossing the border illegally and refusing to comply with police instructions.
His wife and daughter left Georgia in late 2017, after they began receiving threats themselves. With the support of RSF, Mustafayeva successfully applied for political asylum in Germany. Despite calls by local civil society for a full investigation, Georgia has never provided a conclusive explanation for the possible role played by Georgian authorities in Mukhtarli’s abduction.
While in prison in Azerbaijan, authorities isolated Mukhtarli by limiting visits and alienating him from his fellow inmates. On 20 September 2019, his lawyer was searched by police upon entering Mukhtarli’s cell and was locked up for 45 minutes, while prison guards seized and read his notes. Mukhtarli began a hunger-strike, to protest the ill-treatment by police of himself and his lawyer.
Azerbaijan ranks 166th out of 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. The country’s leading critical media outlets have been silenced or have had to relocate abroad, the main independent websites are blocked and at least five journalists are currently in prison.