BAKU, Azerbaijan – An independent Azerbaijani journalist has been abducted from near his home in Georgia and forcibly taken to Azerbaijan, his lawyer said Wednesday.
A court in this former Soviet republic ruled that Afgan Mukhtarli, who is facing charges of smuggling, crossing the border illegally and violently resisting arrest, should remain in custody for three months pending an investigation.
Mukhtarli, who is also a civil rights activist, had been living in neighboring Georgia for two years. His lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, told The Associated Press the journalist was abducted outside his home Monday evening, beaten up and taken to the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia. Sadigov claimed that the journalist's captors planted 10,000 euros ($11,180) on him, which led to the charges.
According to the lawyer, Mukhtarli said that his abductors were clad in Georgian police uniform and that they drove him through Georgian and Azerbaijani border checkpoints. He said he would appeal the court's verdict.
Eldar Sultanov, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General's Office, said the journalist was detained late on Monday "after illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border" with a large sum of money and resisting arrest.
Mukhtarli left Azerbaijan in 2015, around the time when several Azerbaijani journalists working for foreign or local independent media faced charges of tax evasion.
International rights groups have repeatedly criticized the ex-Soviet Caspian Sea nation for cracking down on independent media and opposition activists.
Mukhtarli's wife, Leila Mustafayeva, told the AP she was waiting for her husband at home Monday evening but he never showed up. Mustafayeva said her husband had been investigating Georgian business ties of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's family.
"Naturally, this created resentment in the presidential family," she said, insisting that her husband's disappearance is connected to his investigation.
Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch director of South Caucasus, in a statement described Mukhtarli's disappearance as another step in the Azerbaijani government's "relentless crackdown on critics."
About 100 rights activists and journalists rallied in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding that Georgian authorities explain how they allowed the reported abduction to happen.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili called for a probe into Mukhtarli's alleged abduction, saying it dealt a blow to Georgia's image as a regional leader in media freedom and human rights.
He described it as a "serious challenge to our statehood and sovereignty."
Georgia's chief prosecutor, Irakli Shotadze, said an investigation is already underway to determine how Mukhtarli ended up in Azerbaijan.
A previous version of this story has been corrected to show that the alleged abduction was on Monday, not Tuesday.
Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed to this report from Tbilisi, Georgia.