PARIS – While Mahammad Mirzali was being stabbed in the neck by a gang of five men in a savage attack carried out in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon, he envisioned a gruesome end to his young life.
“I thought this is it, this is the end. These guys are going to cut my head off, leave my body on the street and deliver my head to the guy who ordered the hit,” Mirzali, 27, told VICE World News in a phone interview through journalist Sayqin Rustamli who served as an interpreter.
Just before the attack in the western French port city of Nantes on the 14th of March, the exiled Azerbaijani blogger had received a text message threatening to cut his tongue out, the latest in a long list of threats he’s received since becoming a vocal critic of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva. Aliyeva also happens to be the oil-rich country’s First Vice President, appointed by her husband in 2017.
At one point during the brutal 20-minute attack, Mirzali said his assailants tried to pry his mouth open, but he clenched his jaws shut, suspecting their intentions.
Overall, Mirzali suffered 12 knife wounds across his head, face, neck, arms and legs, lost three litres of blood, and required six hours of surgery.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After being tortured and persecuted for his outspoken anti-government takes, Mirzali left Azerbaijan in 2016 and sought exile in France, hoping to make a fresh start and continue his critiques of Azerbaijan’s ruling class in a democratic country known for championing freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This was, after all, just a year after mass rallies took place in France in support of freedom of expression, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
“I thought, France is a democratic country, I’d be safe from physical attacks and that the government would help protect me. But I’m disappointed,” he said.
Mirzali’s YouTube channel Made in Azerbaijan has 265,000 subscribers and cumulatively his videos have racked up more than 45 million views, seemingly making him a target, even in exile.
Last year, he narrowly survived a separate gun attack in Nantes. Local authorities were aware he had a target on his back. But when he realised he was being followed last Sunday afternoon and called police for help, it took 30 minutes for them to appear, he said.
Police sources told AFP that a group of men spilled out from a car around 2PM along the Quai de la Fosse dock in Nantes and attacked Mirzali, punching him and cutting him across the forehead, head and neck.
No arrests have been made, meaning all of his attackers are still out there. Rustamli, a journalist for an independent Azerbaijan satellite TV channel based out of Strasbourg, Turan TV, himself also moved to France a year ago and is seeking political asylum.
“I don’t think I’m exactly safer from these kinds of attacks here, but I’m safe from being jailed and tortured for 10 years,” Rustamli said in reference to his uncle who was a political prisoner and tortured for three years.
Jeanne Cavelier of Reporters without Borders in France points out the audacity of targeting dissidents living in exile in Europe.
“It shows that there is no respect on the part of the Aliyev regime and his supporters of French and European authorities. They’re not afraid of retaliation and this is worrying for freedom of the press in France,” she said.
Reporters without Borders notes that along with crushing all forms of dissidence and blocking independent news websites in the country, authorities regularly try to silence journalists living in exile by harassing their family members back in Azerbaijan and using blackmail and bribery tactics. Mirzali’s father was also arrested and tortured, while intimate photos capturing his sister in bed with her husband were also used as ransom in blackmail attempts.
“French authorities should swiftly investigate the knife attack on exiled Azerbaijani blogger Mahammad Mirzali, find the perpetrators and those who ordered it, and bring them to justice,” said Gulnoza Said, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator.
“French authorities must ensure that Mirzali and other exiled bloggers and journalists can exercise their right of free expression without having to fear for their lives.”
Mirzali said though he will continue his activism, his future in France is uncertain.
“France is no longer safe for me. France will not protect me.”