By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - An independent Azeri journalist has been abducted in Georgia and forcibly taken to neighboring Azerbaijan where he was detained in custody, his lawyer said, in a case condemned by rights activists.
Afgan Mukhtarli, an investigative journalist and a human rights activist, who had been living in ex-Soviet Georgia since 2015, went missing on Tuesday evening.
Hours later his lawyer Elchin Sadigov told reporters that Mukhtarli had been abducted in the Georgian capital Tbilisi by a group of unknown men, beaten up and taken to the Azeri-Georgian border, where he was detained by Azeri police.
Sadigov said the journalist was charged with illegal border crossing and smuggling.
"Afgan Mukhtarli said that, as they crossed the border, 10,000 euros were put in his pockets," Sadigov said.
Azerbaijan's prosecutor general's office said that the journalist was detained "after illegally crossing the border with a large sum of money".
The court in the Azeri capital Baku was due to hold a hearing later on Wednesday.
Georgia's Interior Ministry said it had launched an investigation into the illegal abduction of the Azeri journalist.
"Communication with the Azeri side is under way," the ministry said in a statement.
London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International said that Mukhtarli "should be immediately and unconditionally released and protected from torture and other ill-treatment".
"This is a deeply sinister development in a country (Azerbaijan) known for its long crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders," Amnesty said in a statement.
"It seems that the Georgian authorities were also complicit in Afgan Mukhtarli's abduction and forced return to Azerbaijan."
Several dozen journalists rallied in Tbilisi on Wednesday in support of their Azeri colleague.
Rights groups accuse Azeri authorities of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents. Baku denies the charges, saying its population enjoys freedom of speech and access to opposition media.
Several rights activists and journalists have been imprisoned in Azerbaijan in recent years on charges including illegal business activity, tax evasion and hooliganism. Their lawyers have dismissed their trials as politically motivated.
(Editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Alison Williams)