The EU, US, OSCE, and local and international rights groups have urged Azerbaijani authorities to release Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who was sentenced on 12 January to 6 years in prison. Georgian authorities have also faced criticism for a the slow pace of the investigation into his abduction from Tbilisi.
The US State Department said in a 12 January statement they were ‘disturbed’ by Mukhtarli’s sentencing, and that charges against him were ‘widely considered to be politically motivated’.
Mukhtarli was convicted of smuggling €10,000 ($11,200) in cash, border trespass, and disobeying border guards.
Harlem Désir, The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media also condemned the court’s ruling, saying the sentence was based on ‘spurious charges’ and were a ‘clear attack on free media’.
The European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic and defence arm, said the sentencing poses ‘serious questions as regards the exercise of fundamental rights including the freedom of expression and media and due process of law in Azerbaijan’.
The US urged the government of Azerbaijan to release Mukhtarli and ‘all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms’. The OSCE’s Désir hoped that the verdict would be overturned on appeal. He has previously called on the authorities to drop all charges against Mukhtarli.
Mukhtarli was abducted last May in Tbilisi where he had resided for years. After failing to return home in the evening on 29 May 2017, he resurfaced again in detention in Azerbaijan.
His lawyer Elchin Sadigov told reporters that Mukhtarli had been kidnapped outside his flat on Tbilisi’s Chonkadze Street by four Georgian speaking men. According to his lawyers, ‘three of Mukhtarli’s four kidnappers wore police uniforms, and one was dressed in civilian clothing’. His lawyers say that his kidnappers called their superiors every 20 minutes to report in.
Georgian authorities under pressure
Since the abduction, Georgian authorities have come under fire for not releasing more details about the case, and not publishing video materials that could show how exactly the journalist was abducted.
Désir recalled that the investigation by Georgian authorities has still not been completed. The US said they are continuing to ‘closely follow the Georgian investigation into the reported abduction’, and reiterated their call that ‘it be full, transparent, and timely’.
The EU also indicated that the ‘alleged abduction […] continues to demand thorough and transparent investigation’.
Nata Dzvelishvili, head of independent media watchdog the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, said that the questions to Georgian authorities remain the same today as on the day of Mukhtarli’s abduction.
‘They still have not been able to answer the existing questions, which obviously strengthens suspicions that indeed, Georgia was in some way complicit in this shameful case’, Dzvelishvili told OC Media.
According to her, serious international pressure is the only way to influence Georgia’s government into at least suggesting ‘how a person, who disappears in Tbilisi, ends up in a Baku prison’.
Mukhtarli’s wife Leyla Mustafayeva, who has fled Tbilisi to seek refuge in Europe, has also accused Georgian authorities of being complicit in her husband’s arrest and imprisonment.
The Interior Ministry told OC Media that the Prosecutor’s Office has taken over the investigation. The Prosecutor’s Office has yet to respond to OC Media’s request for details.