TBILISI -- Dozens of people have demonstrated in the Georgian capital to protest the alleged abduction and forcible return of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afqan Muxtarli to Baku.
Protesters held posters on May 31 saying "Freedom for Afqan Muxtarli!" in Georgian and English.
Meanwhile, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a statement that Muxtarli's "disappearance from the Georgian territory" was a "serious challenge to the Georgian state and its sovereignty."
"Georgia is a regional leader in terms of protection of human rights and journalists in particular," he said. "Upholding this standard is a matter of our state sovereignty."
Georgia's Interior Ministry said it had launched an investigation into the alleged "unlawful imprisonment" of Muxtarli.
Rights groups decried Muxtarli's alleged abduction and detention, saying it was another step in the Azerbaijani government's crackdown on critics.
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.
Muxtarli disappeared on May 29. His lawyer, Elcin Sadyqov, told RFE/RL on May 30 that his client was abducted in Tbilisi, tied up in a car, and beaten by men in civilian clothing who spoke Georgian.
They then changed cars twice before taking Muxtarli across the border to Azerbaijan, Sadyqov said.
He said that Muxtarli told him that as they crossed the border, 10,000 euros were planted in his pockets -- stating that this was done so that Azerbaijani police could subsequently charge him with crimes.
A spokesman for the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office, Eldar Sultanov, said on May 31 that Muxtarli was detained on suspicion of illegally crossing the border and that a large amount of cash was found in his possession. He said that Muxtarli resisted police.
Sadiqov said he saw bruises on Muxtarli’s face and forehead. His said his client complained of "severe pain" and said he thinks that his ribs are broken, the lawyer added.
Amnesty International expressed concern over the situation.
Amnesty's campaigner on the South Caucasus, Levan Asatiani, called Muxtarli's reported abduction "a deeply sinister development in a country known for its long crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders."
He demanded Muxtarli's immediate release and called on Georgian authorities to investigate the situation and "hold accountable all those involved in this gruesome operation.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued similar calls.
"Azerbaijan's crackdown on independent reporting has forced many journalists into exile," CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement. "Forcefully returning them to Azerbaijan is a further sign of the country's hostile behavior to the press."
"Azerbaijan has an appalling record of harassing and prosecuting government critics, and we are seriously concerned" for Muxtarli's safety, according to Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at HRW.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry said on May 30 that it had launched an investigation into the alleged "unlawful imprisonment" of Muxtarli.
International rights defenders and Western governments have criticized Azerbaijan's government for what they say have been persistent clampdowns targeting independent journalists and rights defenders.
Aliyev, who has been president of the oil-rich South Caucasus country of almost 10 million people since shortly before his long-ruling father's death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.