This tyrant’s reach knows no borders

JUST PAST 7 p.m. on May 29 in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, an independent journalist, Afgan Mukhtarli, called his wife from a cafe to say he was coming home. She asked him to buy bread, according to a friend of the journalist who was at the cafe. The friend departed, but Mr. Mukhtarli never made it home. A day later, his wife discovered he was in neighboring Azerbaijan, in jail. Fearing persecution as a journalist, Mr. Mukhtarli had fled Azerbaijan two years earlier. In a brazen example of a police state reaching beyond its borders, Azerbaijan apparently dragged him back.

Mr. Mukhtarli, an outspoken critic of the authoritarian Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, had investigated corruption in Mr. Aliyev’s defense ministry. At the time of his disappearance, he was investigating Mr. Aliyev’s personal assets in Georgia; he had also contributed reports to Meydan TV, an independent digital media service reporting on Azerbaijan. Mr. Mukhtarli was questioned in the politically motivated prosecution of another reporter, Khadija Ismayilova, and he finally fled to Georgia in 2015.

According to accounts Mr. Mukhtarli gave his wife and lawyer, after leaving the cafe he was abducted near his home in Tbilisi, beaten, blindfolded, driven in three separate cars and brought to a border crossing with Azerbaijan, where 10,000 euros were stuffed in his pockets. On the Azeri side, he was charged with smuggling and illegal border crossing. Months later, he is still in detention in Baku.

The Mukhtarli affair has a certain stench. Mr. Aliyev easily took his strongman methods into the heart of another country, Georgia. The European Parliament passed a condemnation, but otherwise this kind of behavior has not drawn the sharp international censure it deserves. In a brief statement, the State Department said it was “disturbed by the reported abduction.” Such timidity may confirm to Mr. Aliyev that the United States under President Trump doesn’t really care when human rights and the rule of law are trampled abroad.

We know that dictators like to trade methods and tactics with each other: clamping shut overseas-based nongovernmental organizations, warning of “foreign agents” lurking around every tree, smothering free speech online. Mr. Aliyev may have been reading up on China’s experience snatching dissidents across frontiers with impunity. Mr. Aliyev is so well practiced in the illiberal toolkit that for all we know, he may be teaching the dictatorship seminar himself these days. Sadly, the classes are full.

Another reason this affair stinks is the murky role of Georgia. Was a nation with European Union and democratic aspirations complicit in Azerbaijan’s cross-border abduction? Georgia’s authorities denied being involved and promised an investigation, but so far very little has been produced. Georgia ought to come clean as soon as possible about the abduction, and Azerbaijan must free Mr. Mukhtarli, the victim of an involuntary forced march across an international frontier. It would also be nice if more governments denounced Mr. Aliyev’s nasty tricks. It might restrain tyrants’ reach.

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