“This is the last warning,” said the text that Mirzali received on 21 March, exactly a week after the stabbing attack. “We can kill you without any problem. You’ve seen that we’re not afraid of anyone (...) If you continue to insult our sisters, we’ll have you killed with a bullet to the head fired by a sniper.” It was signed “Andres Gragmel.”
A refugee in France since 2016, Mirzali is often targeted because of the videos he posts on his YouTube channel, Made in Azerbaijan, in which he criticizes Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, his wife, Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva, and other members of their family.
Several shots were fired at him just after he got into his car in Nantes on the morning of 6 October 2020. In a threatening message on his Facebook messenger in March 2020, the deputy speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, Adil Aliyev, said: “If you don’t shut up, you’ll see what happens to you.”
The French police declined to comment on their investigation, which is ongoing.
“The Azerbaijani regime is exporting its persecution of freedom of expression to France and to Europe,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “After being stabbed ten times, Mahammad Mirzali had to undergo an operation that lasted more than six hours. Pending the results of the investigation, which has not yet concluded although the attack was witnessed, and in view of the fact that he has received new death threats, we ask for him to be placed under police protection.”
As often happens to the families of Azerbaijani journalists and bloggers living in self-imposed exile, Mirzali’s family has been targeted in an attempt to silence him. His father and brother-in-law were arrested in 2017. And, as is often the case in Azerbaijan, the regime also resorted to sex-tape blackmail, sending several intimate videos of one of his sisters to the entire family at the start of March and then circulating it via a Telegram channel.
On 6 March, a week prior to the stabbing attack, Mirzali received an anonymous WhatsApp message referring to it.
Azerbaijan is ranked 168th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Most critical media outlets have been silenced or have had to relocate abroad, the main independent websites are blocked, and at least two journalists are currently in prison. France is ranked 34th.