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.
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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.