Leipzig, Germany, March 18, 2020– Investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli has been released from Prison in Azerbaijan after three years of arbitrary detention. He was released on Tuesday, 17 March, on a fine of 1000 AZN (around €534). Mukhtarli was sentenced to six years in prison by the Belakani District Court of Azerbaijan on 12 January 2018.
On Tuesday night, the journalist landed in Germany’s capital Berlin to the warm embraces of his wife, journalist Leyla Mustafayeva, and their daughter Nuray. Also present were representatives from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who, among other media freedom organisations, have tirelessly campaigned for his release.
Mukhtarli was abducted on the street in the Georgian capital Tblisi on 29 May 2017. He, his wife and their child had fled to Georgia after receiving threats and being followed by the secret police in their homeland, Azerbaijan. They knew it was connected to their investigative work in exposing alleged corruption involving the Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban.
Kidnapped, blindfolded with a bag over his head and held in the back of a car until he reached Azerbaijan, Mukhtarli was charged with illegally crossing the border and smuggling currency, 10,000€, which was said to have been planted on him by his captors.
“It is an incredible relief that Afgan Mukhtarli is now free,” says Lutz Kinkel, ECPMF’s Managing Director. “ECPMF and other media freedom organisations pushed hard for justice to be done. Mukhtarli should never have been detained. In the same breath, we demand the release of at least five other journalists wrongfully jailed in Azerbaijan.”
Immense torture and suffering in prison
During his years of imprisonment, he has suffered torture and inadequate medical care. In January 2018, his sister, two nieces died in unexplained circumstances in their apartment and he was refused permission to attend their funeral. The Azerbaijan government obstructed his appeal and one by one, the lawyers whose practice was in the defence of human rights were removed from the Bar Association. When Mukhtarli’s defence lawyer was detained in the prison on a routine visit and his papers were confiscated, Mukhtarli began a hunger strike in 2019, which could have had very severe consequences for his diabetes and heart condition. He was put into solitary confinement and refused food until the visit could go ahead without surveillance.
Throughout the abduction, trial and imprisonment, the local media, both in Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as the European media freedom community have kept up a constant call for him to be set free. In 2018 Members of the European Members of Parliament called for Mukhtarli’s release and all other journalists who were unjustly imprisoned. ECPMF, together with other media freedom and human rights organisations like Reporters Without Borders Germany and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s High Representative on Freedom of the Media, continued to push for Mukhtarli’s release. Most of all, his wife Leyla Mustafayeva kept up a public and private campaign to win support for his cause and to boost his morale as a political prisoner with severe health problems, jailed for his journalism – which is not a crime.
Through ECPMF’s Journalists-in-Residence Programme (JiR), Leyla and her daughter were able to come to Leipzig. The programme supports journalists who are under threat or at risk, by offering them a peaceful abode in Leipzig so that they can recover and gather new energy. Leyla had this to say about her time as a scholar of the programme:
“The time that I spent in Leipzig within the JiR programme restored to my daughter and myself the peace that I had lost in Baku and Tbilisi…And after my husband, the investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, was kidnapped from Tbilisi and ultimately jailed in Azerbaijan, the six months I spent in Georgia were the most terrible time, My daughter and I were able to separate these nightmares from our daily life and send them to the archive, thanks to the supportive environment we found in Leipzig.”