Baku’s Sabail District Court has imposed three months in pretrial detention on Afgan Mukhtarli, the Azerbaijani journalist abducted from Tbilisi on 29 May. Georgia’s authorities, who Mukhtarli’s family have suggested could have been involved in the abduction, have remained largely silent.
The investigative journalist, who was initially charged with smuggling €10,000 ($11,200) and border trespass, now faces the additional charge of disobeying border guards.
Mukhtarli plans to appeal the decision to a higher court.
Mukhtarli was last seen in Georgia by his friend on the evening of 29 May. After failing to return home, he resurfaced again in Azerbaijan charged with what his lawyer calls ‘fabricated charges’. His lawyer Elchin Sadigov told reporters that Mukhtarli had been kidnapped outside his flat in the Georgian capital Tbilisi by a group of unknown, Georgian speaking men, who beat him up and took him to the Azerbaijani-Georgian border, where he was detained by Azerbaijani police.
Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General’s Office said that the journalist was detained after attempting to ‘illegally cross the state border’. Mukhtarli’s passport remains in Tbilisi.
Georgia’s authorities have remained largely silent on the abduction.
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili refused to comment on the issue on 31 May, and were seen running away from journalists. Mghebrishvili told journalist to refer to the ministry’s official statement online.
Georgia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Aleksandre Jejelava later said that he was not even sure if Mukhtarli, a seasoned investigative journalist, was even a journalist. ‘There’s information that he was a security guard at RFE/RL, not a journalist’, he added.
Mukhtarli’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva responded to Jejelava, asking him publicly whether ‘all the security guards work on investigative journalistic pieces’.
Mukhtarli was a regular contributor to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and Meydan TV, whose work included investigations into alleged corruption within Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense and into the assets of President Ilham Aliyev.
In an attempt to explain how Mukhtarli could have crossed into Azerbaijan without any documents, as Azerbaijan claims, the head of Georgia’s State Security Service, Vakhtang Gomelauri, said that Mukhtarli was not detained at an official border crossing, but elsewhere on the border.
Tamta Mikeladze, head of the Tbilisi-based rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre has accused the authorities of ‘trying to discredit Mukhtarli’.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili broke with ranks, commenting on 31 May that ‘the disappearance of a person is a serious challenge for our statehood and sovereignty’.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry says that it launched an investigation into Mukhtarli’s abduction after his wife filed a report with police on 30 May.
The ministry has issued only a short statement, claiming that ‘communication with the Azerbaijani side is under way’.
International rights groups have condemned Mukhtarli’s abduction. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said that they were outraged by Mukhtarli’s detention. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others also called for his release, saying he must be protected from torture and other ill-treatment.
The IRFS welcomed the Georgian President’s reaction to the case, stressing that as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Georgia must ‘guarantee the safety and a free environment for civil society and human rights defenders’.
‘As an immediate first step, the government of Georgia must launch a full investigation into the kidnapping of Afghan Mukhtarli and demand that the Azerbaijani authorities immediately release him and allow his return to Tbilisi’, their statement read.
US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly expressed concern, stating that ‘there are serious allegations’. ‘We are following this case very closely and expect additional information from the government. These allegations are troubling and we need more information’, local media outlet Interpressnews quoted Kelly.
Renowned Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has herself faced priosn sentences in Azerbaijan, said that Georgia’s authorities need to prove they are not involved with Mukhtarli’s disappearance.
[For a more detailed picture of Mukhtarli’s disappearance and its background, read on OC Media: Tbilisi-based Azerbaijani journalist abducted to Azerbaijan]