By Jane Whyatt
Freed from jail in Azerbaijan, investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli is taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights, demanding justice.
He is also asking critical questions of the Georgian authorities, who have never charged anyone with kidnapping him in broad daylight in the Georgian capital Tblisi, nor produced any explanation of how this could happen with absolute impunity. In an exclusive interview with the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), he alleges that this extraordinary, extra-judicial rendition was undertaken with the complicity of the Georgian authorities.
“I think the Georgian government should be held accountable for this and the people who have committed this crime should pay the price…they have also insulted the people of Georgia”.
In 2017 Mukhtarli was abducted by unknown people on a street in the Georgian capital Tblisi, gagged with a bag over his head and forced into a car which drove him to Azerbaijan. There he was tortured, charged with currency smuggling and illegally crossing the border and subjected to a show trial. It resulted in a six-year sentence, although Mukhtarli had committed no crime. He and his wife, journalist Leyla Mustafayeva had found refuge in Georgia after their work in exposing alleged corruption led to them being persecuted in their homeland of Azerbaijan.
Mustafayeva campaigned for years to get her husband set free. With the help of the ECPMF and Reporters Without Borders (ROG – the German Chapter of Reporters Sans Frontieres ) she was able to claim political asylum in Germany for herself and their daughter. She helped other political prisoners’ families to find practical assistance and solidarity and to keep up the pressure on the Azerbaijan regime.
Finally, on 17 March 2020, after serving almost three years in pre-trial detention and imprisonment, Afgan Mukhtarli was released and flown to Germany for a family reunion. He was fined 1000 AZN (534 Eur).
⚖️#AfganMukhtarli has faced injustice. It is lunacy that he had to pay a fine of 1000 AZN (€534) to be released, when really, he should be the one being paid for all the years lost and damages to his work & life. Justice lovers, let's ensure he gets it. #JournalismNotCrime pic.twitter.com/JTQYoHmvc4
— ECPMF (@ECPMF) March 22, 2020
He thanked the international media freedom community, in particular, ECPMF and ROG. Noting that the breakthrough came after a prison visit from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic and Sunna Ævarsdóttir, Representative of the Council of Europe.
Mukhtarli paid tribute to their diplomatic efforts behind the scenes, and to the work of the German Foreign Office and its embassy staff in Baku. He also thanked everyone who campaigned for his freedom.
“Most of them I don’t even know, I’ve never met them. I want to thank all of them. I want also to thank all human rights organisations, all the organisations, which are fighting for the release of journalists around the world. They all worked very hard to make sure that my case was not forgotten.”
Commenting on Mukhtarli’s release, ECPMF’s managing director Lutz Kinkel said: “The campaign to free Afgan Mukhtarli proves that solidarity and persistence from the media freedom community can produce positive results. We shall not rest until every case of wrongful detention of journalists in Azerbaijan is resolved and there is an end to impunity for crimes against journalists.”
Kinkel urged everyone to be vigilant and look out for violations of press and media freedom, and to upload the details to the Mapping Media Freedom website for verification, publication and action.
At the political level, the Members of the European Parliament(MEPs) led by Rebecca Harms who tabled several critical resolutions and the Members of the British House of Commons who tabled a motion, played a significant role. Sir Peter Bottomley, a veteran Conservative MP and former minister has created a new Early Day Motion:
That this House welcomes news of the release, on Tuesday 17 March, of the journalist Afgan Muhktarli, who had courageously exposed corruption in the government of Azerbaijan, and was kidnapped in Georgia in May 2017, taken forcibly across the border into Azerbaijan, and was sentenced to a six years in prison; notes that his imprisonment was a blatant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, of which Azerbaijan is a signatory; and congratulates those, including his wife, the journalist, Leyla Mustafayeva, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Reporters Without Borders, and the German Federal Foreign Office, who campaigned successfully to win back his freedom.
The MP emphasised that although this result is welcome, many human rights defenders are still arbitrarily detained in Azerbaijan, including five journalists.
Azerbaijan is currently ranked 166 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom index, down 3 places from 2018.