BRUSSELS -- The European Union on January 14 denounced the prison sentence handed down to Azerbaijani journalist Afqan Muxtarli, saying it poses “serious questions” regarding the exercise of fundamental rights in the country.
The Balakan District Court sentenced Muxtarli to six years in prison on January 12 after convicting him of smuggling and other crimes in a politically charged trial condemned by rights groups.
Rights groups and Western states have condemned the case as part of long-standing government effort to quash dissent and punish those who question the authorities or seek to expose graft.
In a statement, Maja Kocinjancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said on January 14 that the sentence handed down to Muxtarli “poses serious questions as regards the exercise of fundamental rights including the freedom of expression and media and due process of law in Azerbaijan.”
Kocinjancic added that Mukhtarli’s alleged abduction in Georgia followed by his arrest and prosecution in Azerbaijan “continues to demand thorough and transparent investigation.”
“All cases of incarceration related to the exercise of fundamental rights should be reviewed urgently by Azerbaijan, followed by the release of all those concerned, in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments,” the statement also said.
Muxtarli and his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, fled to Georgia in 2015, fearing for their safety in connection with his reporting on suspected corruption in Aliyev's circle.
A day after Muxtarli went missing in Tbilisi in May 2017, Azerbaijani authorities said he was in custody in Baku on suspicion of smuggling and crossing the border illegally.
Muxtarli's lawyers, Elcin Sadiqov and Nemat Karimli, told the court that their client was "abducted" in Georgia and illegally brought into Azerbaijan.
They said the case was politically motivated and asked the court to drop all charges.
But the court in the former Soviet republic's north found Muxtarli guilty of illegal border crossing, smuggling cash, and assaulting officials.
In his final statement, Muxtarli said he was not guilty and vowed to continue expressing his thoughts and ideas through writing as a journalist.
President Ilham Aliyev's government "cannot silence us," he said.
"You can arrest or kill us, but there are others to come and continue the fight. Our main goal is not to topple Ilham Aliyev. Our highest aim is to provide people with hope," he said.
Human rights groups and Western governments have called on Baku to release the journalist.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a January 12 statement said that the United States is “disturbed" by the sentencing of Muxtarli for offenses "widely believed to be politically motivated."
"We urge the government of Azerbaijan to release Mr. Muxtarli and all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms," Nauert said.
She added that Georgia is investigating Muxtarli's abduction and she called on Tbilisi to be "full, transparent, and timely" in pursuing his case.
European lawmakers passed a resolution in June calling on Azerbaijani authorities to free the journalist immediately and drop all charges against him.
Muxtarli's wife, Mustafayeva, has criticized the Georgian authorities for failing to prevent her husband from being taken to Azerbaijan.
She has moved to Germany, saying that she was being followed by the same people she believes seized her husband and felt unsafe in Georgia.
Western governments and international human rights groups say Aliyev's government has persistently persecuted independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists.
Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his long-ruling father's death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.