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A screenshot from the February interview with Afgan Mukhtarli (/Rustavi 2)

Since exiled Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli disappeared from Tbilisi, reappearing a day later in an Azerbaijani jail, suspicions of Georgian involvement in his kidnapping have remained. Mukhtarli himself has accused the Georgian government of complicity, and while this is a charge they deny, local rights groups are becoming impatient with the pace and transparency of the official investigation into his disappearance.

On 6 February, imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was given two days of compassionate release, to attend a memorial service for his sister and her two children. The three were found dead in their flat in Zagatala, northern Azerbaijan, reportedly from carbon monoxide poisoning. Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV took advantage of this opportunity, interviewing him at his father’s home in Zagatala, some 30 kilometres from the Georgian border.

Fragments of the interview were broadcasted later that day, on the channel’s ‘Kurieri’ programme, with a more complete version broadcast later that week on ‘P.S’. During these, he spoke in detail of his kidnapping from Georgia and transfer to Azerbaijan, and accused Georgia — naming Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili — of being complicit. Mukhtarli, a veteran investigative journalist from Azerbaijan, had spoken of this throughout his trial, which concluded with his sentencing to 6 years in prison in January for ‘smuggling €10,000 ($11,200) in cash, border trespass, and disobeying border guards’. The charges were widely regarded outside of Azerbaijan to be ‘spurious’.

[Read on OC Media: A government’s fear or bargaining chips — Political prisoners in Azerbaijan]

Afgan Mukhtarli greets supporters as he is taken to the court in Baku, Azerbaijan, May 31, 2017. (REUTERS/Aziz Karimov)

Mukhtarli was last seen in Georgia by his friend on the evening of 29 May 2017. After failing to return home, he resurfaced again in an Azerbaijani jail. His lawyer Elchin Sadigov told reporters that Mukhtarli had been kidnapped outside his flat on Tbilisi’s Chonkadze Street by four Georgian-speaking men.

According to his lawyers, ‘three of Mukhtarli’s four kidnappers wore police uniforms, and one was dressed in civilian clothing’. His lawyers say that his kidnappers called their superiors every 20 minutes to report in.

An investigation by the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office into his kidnapping has not concluded.

Georgian complicity

Afgan’s wife, journalist Leyla Mustafayeva, says the authorities in Georgia are no longer conducting regular investigations into the facts surrounding her husband’s abduction. She says the reason they give for this is that Azerbaijan has refused their requests to speak to him in prison. ‘Over the last nine months, an “imitation” of an investigation went on in Georgia, and those following the process have actually been following an imitation’, Mustafayeva told OC Media. She says the investigation needed to be more open, and called for more international scrutiny of the process.

Leyla Mustafayeva and Afgan Mukhtarli (Leyla Mustafayeva /Facebook)

Leyla Mustafayeva with her daughter (Fatima Karimli/OC Media)

Mustafayeva says her husband was given a two-day release for the memorial service, but that this was cut short and on the evening of his interview he was sent back to prison. She believes this was done at the request of Georgian officials.

‘Afgan [had already] spoken harshly about the [Azerbaijani] government in his interview with Azerbaijani media — but they didn’t take him back that day. The reaction came after the interview went on air about the Prime Minister of Georgia’.

In his interview with Rustavi 2, Mukhtarli said that at the time of his abduction, he had been investigating business links between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. He accused the Georgian authorities of being complicit, stating that ‘without the permission of the Prime Minister, they would not have been able to get me across the border’.

Elman Fattah, deputy head of the opposition Azerbaijani Musavat party, told OC Media that the interview could damage the compromise between the Azerbaijani and Georgian governments.

‘It’s a well-known fact that Afgan Mukhtarli’s kidnapping took place as a result of an agreement between the two countries. After [the interview], there will be more focus on Georgia, which will be exposed to international pressure. The fact is, this mourning ceremony allowed Afgan Mukhtarli to speak clearly about the events surrounding his abduction, and reduced the possibility for Georgia to refute being involved.’

Tamar Khulordava, who chairs parliament’s Committee On European Integration and sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, remains sceptical of allegations of collusion from the Georgian side. ‘We need to get the facts right. The interview is one thing, but is not sufficient for establishing facts’, Khulordava told OC Media. ‘I also listened to the TV interview where Mukhtarli speculates on who ordered his kidnapping without providing any details on his allegations. Georgian authorities have requested the possibility to interview Mukhtarli and so far Azerbaijan is refusing it. All Georgia can do is to investigate.’

Accepting the interview as evidence

The Tbilisi office of international rights group Human Rights House has been following the investigation in Georgia. Archil Chopikashvili, a lawyer for the group, says the interview could have a significant impact on the investigation, but that the Prosecutor’s Office must add it to the investigation papers as evidence.

‘We have submitted this interview to the Prosecutor’s Office as evidence. By law, this should be added to the investigation papers, but we have not been given a response. We hope it will be added, in which case we will send the document of addition along with the court verdict in Azerbaijan to the European Court of Human Rights’.

Rusudan Mchedlishvili, from local rights group Article 42 of the Constitution, say they have sent a joint appeal with the Human Rights House to the Georgian authorities to recognise the interview as evidence and to bring more transparency to their investigation.

‘In this interview, Afgan Mukhtarli talked about all the details of how the kidnapping occurred — this is very important. We asked the government for a formal meeting to discuss them. We plan for many human rights organisations to attend. We also appealed to the European Parliament to establish a special commission to monitor the process.’

Mchedlishvili says that if the interview is ignored and the authorities continue to remain tight-lipped about their investigations, rights groups will start to protest again.

Rally in support of Mukhtarli in Tbilisi on 31 May (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

Tamar Khulordava defended the authorities’ response to the affair. ‘Three very high ranking officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs have been removed (including the Chief of Border Guard Service and the Chief of the Counterintelligence Service)’, she said. ‘The issue is widely and openly debated in the Georgian civil society and media. This demonstrates the reaction that the country has to such incidents.’

Despite official denials, talk of the possibility of Georgian involvement has remained a talking point in Georgia’s media. Local rights groups and international organisations have warned of the damage the incident could cause to Georgia’s reputation. And Europe has already taken note — several members of the European Parliament raised concerns to OC Media about Georgia’s image as a democratic country amidst the investigation of Mukhtarli’s abduction.

Here, Khulordava agrees with the government’s critics. ‘The situation around Mukhtarli’s case is unclear and a stain to our reputation’, she said. ‘The first thing that needs to be done is a proper investigation of what happened.”

 

The Afgan Mukhtarli case: an investigation stalled?