Azerbaijan released investigative reporter Afgan Mukhtarli early from a six-year prison sentence Tuesday and allowed the journalist to fly to Germany to be reunited with his wife and daughter.
Mukhtarli, a freelancer for Meydan TV, had been detained in Azerbaijan since May 2017. Mukhtarli's lawyer at the time of his arrest, Elchin Sadygov, told the press freedom organization Committee to Protect Journalists that year that the journalist was abducted from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he had moved in 2014, and was forcibly taken across the border to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan charged Mukhtarli with illegally crossing the border and bringing in contraband. In 2018, a court sentenced him to six years in prison, the independent Azerbajani news agency Turan reported.
Mukhtarli's wife, investigative journalist Leyla Mustafayeva, told VOA's Azerbaijani Service she learned of her husband's release from his lawyer.
"(The) German Embassy in Baku contacted his lawyer, Nemat Kerimli, and they told him that Afgan has been released," Mustafayeva said. "I haven't talked to him yet, and I do not yet know the conditions under which he was released."
Alex Raufoglu, a Washington-based Azerbaijani journalist and Amnesty USA's country specialist on Azerbaijan, told VOA that the reason for the early release was unclear but that the lawyer, who spoke with Turan, said authorities had suspended the remaining three years of the sentence.
Mukhtarli had reported critically on the Azerbaijani government, including allegations of corruption. Before his disappearance and arrest, he was investigating the finances of the ruling family for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the BBC reported.
The journalist's health deteriorated while in prison.
"Prison doctors have refused to examine him, despite calls from both international and local rights defenders," Raufoglu said, adding that Mukhtarli has high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
The European Parliament in June 2017 adopted a resolution on Mukhtarli's case, calling on Azerbaijan to drop the charges and for Georgia to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance.
The resolution, which cited his lawyer, said that four people wearing Georgian police uniforms forced Mukhtarli into a car, beat him and then drove him to the border.
"This case cast a dark shadow over Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of which ignored calls from governments and international organizations to investigate the circumstances of Afgan's abduction," Raufoglu said.
Reaction to release
Gulnoza Said, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement she was relieved to hear about the journalist's release.
"Those involved in Mukhtarli's abduction from Georgia and unlawful imprisonment in Azerbaijan should be held responsible," she said.
In a March 18 statement emailed to VOA, the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington said, “The Surakhani District Court in Azerbaijan reviewed and satisfied the request of Mr. Mukhtarli to change his sentence to allow an early conditional release from detention.”
The embassy added that all detainees in Azerbaijan were provided with “adequate conditions and medical care.”
The Georgian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to VOA's emailed request for comment.
Harlem Desir, the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media, welcomed the release on Twitter. Desir said that he had intervened several times on the journalist's behalf to Azerbaijani authorities.
Mukhtarli was one of at least six journalists jailed in direct relation to their work in Azerbaijan at the time of CPJ's annual prison census.
This story originated in VOA's Azerbaijani Service. This story has been updated to include a response from the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington. VOA's Jessica Jerreat contributed.