After leaving a movie theater in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, freelance writer Alexander Thatcher was greeted with a flurry of anxious text messages from his roommate.
Someone had broken into their apartment, she told him, and taken their passports. When Thatcher arrived home, he said it didn't seem like a typical break-in.
"Things immediately seemed very, very weird about the theft, about the way the apartment looked," Thatcher told VOA. For starters, nothing of significant value — iPads and recording equipment — had been stolen, he said.
Thatcher suspects that the early December break-in was connected to his work covering Azerbaijani politics.
An American based in Tbilisi, Thatcher is a graduate student at Central European University and writes for regional news sites EVN Report and Open Caucasus Media.
Over the years, Thatcher has faced significant online harassment from pro-Baku accounts over his critical writing, he said. He had published an article about Armenophobia in Azerbaijan just a few weeks before the incident.
"I suspect the intent was to be as disconcerting as possible. Moving furniture around, visibly leaving evidence that the apartment had been searched in its entirety while ignoring very valuable possessions," Thatcher said. "It's to make me uneasy. To make me worry about my safety and that of my roommate."
A wave of media arrests
The break-in comes amid a wave of media arrests inside Azerbaijan. At least eight journalists have been jailed in Azerbaijan since late November in a move that press freedom groups characterized as politically motivated and retaliatory.
Azerbaijan's embassy in Washington told VOA it rejected those claims.
However, two cases involving critics of Azerbaijan in neighboring Georgia have raised questions about whether the government's crackdown may be extending beyond its borders.
Azerbaijani journalist Elmaddin Shamilzade told VOA that on December 15, three men harassed him at a Tbilisi bar. One man threatened him with a knife, he said, and the men berated Shamilzade with questions about Azerbaijan.
Shamilzade, who is editor in chief of the news site Avasor TV, said he has been followed multiple times since moving to Tbilisi for graduate school last year. He believes the bar incident was a warning.
"I think that the government of Azerbaijan wants to tell me that even though you are outside the country, you are in the region under our control. Think about the steps you take," Shamilzade told VOA.
Shamilzade has clashed previously with Azeri police over his reporting.
In June 2023, police in Baku detained and assaulted Shamilzade when he refused to delete a video showing police officers at an environmental protest, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.
In an emailed statement to VOA, Jamila Mammadova, a public affairs officer at Azerbaijan's embassy in Washington, said the country "has never targeted its critics."
"It is obvious that such groundless claims against Azerbaijan do not reflect the facts and reality on the ground," Mammadova said. "This baseless statement is another attempt to distort the reality, and intervention into the internal affairs of Azerbaijan, and the legal investigation process."
Group documents harassment of journalists
While it's difficult to prove whether Azerbaijan was behind these two incidents in Tbilisi, it's not out of the realm of possibility, regional analysts said.
"It's unfortunate that the first thing I would think is that the state is potentially behind such an insidious act," Arzu Geybulla, founder of Azerbaijan Internet Watch, told VOA from Istanbul.
The organization, which tracks surveillance and censorship in Azerbaijan, has documented widespread state-sponsored harassment of journalists both online and offline.
The New York-based CPJ has also noted incidents of Baku seemingly operating outside its borders.
"Unfortunately, in recent years Azerbaijan has gained a reputation as a significant perpetrator of transnational repression, particularly involving journalists and bloggers," Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the CPJ, told VOA.
In 2017, CPJ and others documented two separate cases in which a journalist and a blogger were forcibly returned to Azerbaijan from abroad.
The targeting of journalists in Georgia underscores the precarious balancing act the former Soviet state is undertaking between the West and Russia and its allies like Azerbaijan, according to Georgi Derluguian, a professor at New York University Abu Dhabi who specializes in the Caucasus region.
"I do worry for many Westerners and especially for brave Azerbaijani dissidents and journalists who find themselves in Georgia — not exactly quite in safety, not far enough from the Azerbaijani region," he told VOA. "And there is quite little that can be done about it, frankly."
Thatcher and Shamilzade reported their incidents to Tbilisi police, but both said the investigations appear to be slow-moving.
Georgia's Washington embassy and Ministry of Internal Affairs did not reply to VOA's emails requesting comment.
When it comes to transnational repression, "the main goal is to silence criticism or dissent among diaspora communities," according to Grady Vaughan, who researches transnational repression at Freedom House. "The crackdown on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is reflected in transnational repression."
The situation for media in Azerbaijan has prompted an increase in journalists fleeing, according to CPJ's Said. She added that CPJ is aware of multiple incidents of apparent harassment or surveillance of exiled journalists.
"At present, there's not enough evidence to assert that there's a concerted campaign underway as there is inside the country. But it's something that we're monitoring with concern, especially in the light of the upcoming presidential elections," Said added.
Azerbaijan is set to hold presidential elections in February.
By making it all but impossible for independent media to operate inside the country, Azerbaijan's government is forcing journalists into exile, where they often regroup in a more critical form that again draws Baku's ire, according to Said.
"If the authorities continue to set the apparent goal of suppressing any form of reporting that does not conform to the government line, then they are condemning themselves to never-ending cycles of repression," she said.