Afgan Mukhtarli, a prominent investigative journalist and a political activist, was freed yesterday – a rare bit of good news from Azerbaijan.

Journalist Afgan Mukhtarli rejoins his daughter in a Berlin airport following his release from prison in Azerbaijan, March 17, 2020. © 2020 Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL

Mukhtarli had been serving a 6-year prison sentence handed down in 2017 on bogus, politically motivated charges. On March 17, a Baku court unexpectedly ordered his early release and allowed him to fly to Germany, where he reunited with his wife and daughter.

In May 2017, Mukhtarli was abducted in Georgia, where he was living in exile, fearing political persecution against government critics in his homeland of Azerbaijan. Less than 24 hours after his abduction, Mukhtarli resurfaced in Azerbaijani border police custody, facing fabricated charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and violently resisting arrest. In January 2018, following a trial that fell far short of international standards, a court sentenced him to six years in prison.

Georgian authorities promptly opened an investigation into the abduction and suspended a number of counterintelligence and border police officials in 2017. But the investigation remains inconclusive.

Mukhtarli developed serious health complications in prison and did not receive adequate medical care. Fearing for their safety in Georgia, his wife, also a journalist, and their young daughter fled the country in October 2017 and received asylum in Germany.

The international community condemned Mukhtarli’s abduction and wrongful conviction. In June 2017, the European Parliament adopted an urgent resolution strongly condemning Mukhtarli’s prosecution in Azerbaijan, calling for his release, and urging Georgia to investigate his disappearance and “bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Mukhtarli is free, but at least five other journalists and bloggers continue to languish in Azerbaijani jails. They include Polad Aslanov, Fuad Ahmadli, Ziya Asadli, Araz Guliyev, and Elchin Ismayilli, who publicly criticized the authorities and were imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Others continue to face arbitrary and disproportionate travel bans, like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was jailed from December 2014 to May 2016 in retaliation for her work as a journalist. In March 2018, the authorities even barred her from traveling to Turkey to say goodbye to her dying mother.  

Azerbaijan should release the remaining journalists from jail and allow them to report freely and without undue interference. Those involved in Mukhtarli’s abduction from Georgia and unlawful imprisonment in Azerbaijan should be held accountable.