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U.S. 'Disturbed' By Azerbaijani Journalist's Alleged Abduction In Georgia

Afqan Muxtarli waves to supporters in Baku on May 30.
Afqan Muxtarli waves to supporters in Baku on May 30.

The United States has said that it is "disturbed" by the alleged abduction of an Azerbaijani journalist critical of Baku who says he was forcefully returned from Georgia to Azerbaijan, where he was taken into custody.

The June 3 statement by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert came the same day that Georgia's prime minister proposed granting Georgian citizenship to the wife and children of journalist Afqan Muxtarli following his alleged kidnapping in Tbilisi on May 29.

"The United States is disturbed by the reported abduction in Tbilisi, Georgia, and subsequent arrest in Azerbaijan" of Muxtarli, Nauert said.

Muxtarli and his wife fled to Georgia in 2015, fearing for their safety over his investigations into Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's alleged links to corruption.

His attorney, Elcin Sadyqov, told RFE/RL his client was abducted in Tbilisi on May 29, tied up in a car, beaten by men in civilian clothing who spoke Georgian, and brought across the border into Azerbaijan.

Sadyqov said he saw bruises on Muxtarli’s face and forehead, and that his client complained of "severe pain" and thinks that his ribs are broken.

Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Eldar Sultanov said on May 31 that Muxtarli was detained on suspicion of illegally crossing the border, and alleged that he was in possession of a large amount of cash.

The Georgian Interior Ministry has said it is investigating the Muxtarli's possible "unlawful imprisonment," and President Giorgi Margvelashvili said that the journalist's "disappearance from the Georgian territory" was a "serious challenge to the Georgian state and its sovereignty."

Nauert said in the June 3 statement that the United States is "closely following the Georgian investigation into the reported abduction" and urges "that it be full, transparent, and timely."

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, meanwhile, said in a June 3 statement that he would ask Margvelashvili to grant Georgian citizenship to Muxtarli's wife and children "expeditiously and exceptionally." He said he would also ask the Georgian Justice Ministry to provide legal assistance to Muxtarli's family if necessary.

Rights activists have decried Muxtarli's alleged abduction and detention, calling it the latest example of Azerbaijan’s crackdown on critics.

Nauert said Washington urged Baku "to release all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms in accordance with its international and OSCE commitments."

Aliyev and his government have brushed of criticism by international rights watchdogs and Western officials who say Baku is clamping down on dissenting voices.

Nauert also said that the United States was "troubled" by the May 25 detention of Gozal Bayramli, the deputy head of Azerbaijan's opposition Popular Front Party (AXCP).

AXCP Chairman Ali Kerimli said earlier that Bayramli was detained at a border checkpoint when she was returning to Azerbaijan from Georgia, and that she told him something had been planted in her bag before police detained her.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian and Azerbaijani services