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HRW Welcomes Azerbaijani Journalist's Release, Deplores Others Still Behind Bars

Afqan Muxtarli arrives at Berlin's Schoenefeld Airport on March 17.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Azerbaijan to free at least five journalists and bloggers who it says have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

The New York-based human rights watchdog made the call on March 18, the day after Azerbaijani authorities released investigative reporter Afqan Muxtarli from prison.

Calling the move "a rare bit of good news" from Azerbaijan, HRW said in a statement that at least five other journalists and bloggers -- Polad Aslanov, Fuad Ahmadli, Ziya Asadli, Araz Guliyev, and Elcin Ismayilli -- continue to languish in the Caucasus state's jails after publicly criticizing the authorities.

It urged Azerbaijani authorities to release them and "allow them to report freely and without undue interference."

The group noted that other journalists "continue to face arbitrary and disproportionate travel bans," including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was jailed from December 2014 to May 2016.

On March 17, a Baku court ordered Muxtarli's early release from prison and allowed him to fly to Germany, where he reunited with his wife and daughter.

In May 2017, Muxtarli was abducted in Georgia, where he was living in exile, fearing political persecution in Azerbaijan.

He resurfaced in custody in Azerbaijan, where he faced what human rights groups called politically motivated charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and violently resisting arrest.

Muxtarli was sentenced in January 2018 to six years in prison in a case that was condemned by the international community.

The journalist developed serious health complications in prison and did not receive adequate medical care, according to HRW.

Georgian authorities have opened an investigation into the abduction and suspended a number of counterintelligence and border police officials.

However, HRW said the probe remained inconclusive.

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