Azeri journalist abducted in Georgia, put in custody in Azerbaijan

TBILISI/BAKU (Reuters) - An independent Azeri journalist has been abducted in Georgia and forcibly taken to neighboring Azerbaijan where he was detained in custody, his lawyer said on Wednesday, in a case condemned by rights activists.

Azerbaijani Journalist Afgan Mukhtarli greets supporters as he is taken to the court in Baku, Azerbaijan, May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Karimov

Afgan Mukhtarli, an investigative journalist and human rights activist who had been living in the former Soviet republic of Georgia since 2015, went missing on Tuesday evening.

Early on Wednesday, a few hours after the abduction, lawyer Elchin Sadigov told reporters that Mukhtarli had been kidnapped in the Georgian capital Tbilisi by a group of unknown men, beaten up and taken forcibly to the Azeri-Georgian border, where he was detained by Azeri police.

The journalist was charged by the Azeris with illegal border crossing and smuggling, Sadigov said.

“Afgan Mukhtarli said that as they crossed the border, 10,000 euros were put in his pockets,” Sadigov added.

Azerbaijan’s prosecutor general’s office said that the journalist was detained “after illegally crossing the border with a large sum of money.”

The court in the Azeri capital Baku late on Wednesday ordered Mukhtarli’s pre-trial detention for three months.

“Mukhtarli’s arrest was a political order of Azeri authorities and he was punished for his critical articles,” the journalist’s other lawyer, Osman Kazimov, told Reuters.

He said the lawyers would appeal the court’s ruling.

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Georgia’s Interior Ministry said it had launched an investigation into the illegal abduction of the Azeri journalist.

“Communication with the Azeri side is under way,” the ministry said in a statement.

London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International said that Mukhtarli “should be immediately and unconditionally released and protected from torture and other ill-treatment.”

“This is a deeply sinister development in a country (Azerbaijan) known for its long crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders,” Amnesty said in a statement.

“It seems that the Georgian authorities were also complicit in Afgan Mukhtarli’s abduction and forced return to Azerbaijan.”

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights said he was “appalled” by the abduction.

“Azerbaijan’s authorities must release Mr. Mukhtarli without delay and ensure that he fully enjoys his human rights, including the protection from torture and ill treatment,” Nils Muižnieks said in a statement.

Several dozen journalists rallied in Tbilisi on Wednesday in support of their Azeri colleague.

Rights groups accuse Azeri authorities of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents. Baku denies the charges, saying its population enjoys freedom of speech and access to opposition media.

Several rights activists and journalists have been imprisoned in Azerbaijan in recent years on charges including illegal business activity, tax evasion and hooliganism. Their lawyers have dismissed their trials as politically motivated.

Additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova in Baku, editing by Dmitry Solovyov, Alison Williams and G Crosse