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Afqan Muxtarli

BALAKAN, Azerbaijan -- A court in Azerbaijan has sentenced journalist Afqan Muxtarli to six years in prison after convicting him of smuggling and other crimes in a politically charged trial condemned by rights groups.

The Balakan District Court issued the verdict and sentence on January 12 after an impassioned final statement by Muxtarli, who said President Ilham Aliyev's government "cannot silence us."

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.

Muxtarli and his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, fled to Georgia in 2015, fearing for their safety in connection with his reporting on suspected corruption in President Ilham Aliyev's circle.

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."
-- Afqan Muxtarli

A day after the journalist 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, before a break in the hearing ahead of the verdict, Muxtarli said that he is not guilty and vowed to continue expressing his thoughts and ideas through writing as a journalist.

"We are here and we write and write. You cannot silence us," he said. "I was lucky that I was not killed when forcibly taken from Georgia to Baku. That I was not killed while in a detention cell.

"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.

WATCH: Azerbaijan Locks Up Journalist It Allegedly Kidnapped From Georgia (from June 1, 2017)

Azerbaijan Locks Up Journalist It Allegedly Kidnapped From Georgia
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Prosecutors had asked the court to impose an eight-year prison sentence on Muxtarli.

Human rights groups and Western governments have called on Baku to release the journalist.

"The United States is disturbed" by the sentencing of Muxtarli for offenses "widely believed to be politically motived," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement late on January 12.

"We urge the government of Azerbaijan to release Mr. Muxtarli and all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms," she said.

Nauert said 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 him immediately and drop all charges against him.

Muxtarli's wife, Mustafyeva, 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.

Prisoners line up at the Pul-e Charkhi prison after their release in Kabul on January 11.

Afghan officials say the country’s president has issued pardons to 75 prisoners loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who signed a peace deal with the Kabul government in 2016.

The 75 pardoned convicts were released on January 11 from the Pul-e-Charkhi prison east of Kabul, prison press officer Shah Mir Amirpoor said.

Under the 2016 agreement, President Ashraf Ghani agreed to release the followers of Hekmatyar in an effort to encourage insurgent groups to lay down their arms.

The release has been delayed for months. Human rights groups criticized Kabul for agreeing to the move that allowed prisoners suspected of being involved in attacks on civilians to go free.

An initial group of 55 prisoners were released in May 2017.

Hekmatyar battled U.S. and Afghan forces after the U.S. invasion in 2001 and was known as the "Butcher of Kabul" for actions during the country’s civil war of the 1990s.

The deal gave him and his followers immunity for past deeds and gave them full political rights.

The United Nations in 2017 removed Hekmatyar’s name from its sanctions list.

Nadir Afghan, a spokesman for Hekmatyar's Hizb-i Islami party, claims that more than 2,200 party members remain in jail in Afghanistan.

Other warlords have been reluctant to sign on to the deal offered by Ghani.

With reporting by AP and Tolo News

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