By Meydan TV, additional reporting by Jane Whyatt
On 12 January, the Balakan Regional Court in Azerbaijan sentenced investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to six years in prison, concluding a trial which has been widely criticised internationally.
Meanwhile, members of the UK Parliament are calling for more humane treatment of the jailed journalist.
A motion led by Labour MP Ian Austin, and a series of questions to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, ask the British government to make representations to their counterparts in Azerbaijan. They deplore the jail term, and ask that Afgan Mukhtarli be allowed out to attend the memorial service for his sister and her two children, who died in unexplained circumtances on New Year’s Eve.
Defence evidence refused
In his final statement, the state prosecutor had asked the court to sentence Mukhtarli to eight years in prison, citing a lack of extenuating circumstances.
In their statements, defence lawyers pointed out that, over the course of the trial, the court had rejected all of their motions and refused to allow any of their evidence, making it impossible for the defence to present its case.
Mukhtarli denied the charges, alleging instead that he had been arrested for his work as an investigative journalist. But, according to Mukhtarli, the Azerbaijani authorities cannot silence the press by imprisoning journalists.
“These arrests are meaningless,” said the journalist in his final statement prior to sentencing. “We’ll write in prison, too. We don’t write to overthrow the Aliyevs tomorrow. We write to give people hope. You can’t take that hope that we give people away from us. Put us in prison and others will write.”
“You can’t silence the true voice of the people”
Listing a number of Azerbaijani journalists who have been murdered or died under suspicious circumstances, Mukhtarli added: “By killing us or putting us in prison you can’t silence the true voice of the people, your honour.”
US State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, issued a statement yesterday urging “the government of Azerbaijan to release Mr. Mukhtarli and all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”
“Today’s judgment casts a dark shadow not only on the Azerbaijani authorities who brought these trumped-up charges, but also on the Georgian authorities, who at the very least failed to prevent his illegal transfer,” said Levan Asatiani of Amnesty International. “Afgan Mukhtarli is a prisoner of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.”
On 29 May 2017, Afgan Mukhtarli vanished from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was living, only to reappear under arrest in Baku. The Azerbaijani authorities charged Mukhtarli with crossing the border into Azerbaijan illegally, smuggling (he was allegedly carrying $10,000 at the time of his arrest), and resisting the orders of a police officer. The journalist himself maintains that he was kidnapped in Tbilisi and brought to Azerbaijan against his will.
Mukhtarli is an investigative journalist who has published several pieces at Meydan TV. His last contribution before his arrest was an article about politically-motivated kidnappings in Azerbaijan.