Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli disappeared near his flat on 29 May in Tbilisi, Georgia. He turned up in custody in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku a day later. He claims that he was abducted by Azerbaijani security forces, with possible Georgian involvement.
Afgan Mukhtarli is now in the custody of the Investigative Unit of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan, according to his lawyer Elchin Sadigov.
From Tbilisi to Baku
Mukhtarli was last seen in Georgia by his friend and colleague Dashgin Agalarli, another Azerbaijani living in exile, on the evening of 29 May. According to Agalarli, the two were having dinner in a café on Orbeliani Square near Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, which, according to Mukhtarli’s wife, is 15 minutes away from the place they were staying.
Sadigov says that Mukhtarli was abducted near his house by plain-clothed men who spoke Georgian. The men put the journalist into a car, tied him up, put a bag over his head, and drove him for roughly two hours. According to Sadigov, they changed cars before putting him into a third car, with Azerbaijani-speaking individuals in it. When they removed the bag from his head, he was already on the other side of the Azerbaijan–Georgia border crossing point.
Mukhtarli’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, told media that his passport remained in Tbilisi.
Azerbaijani authorities are accusing Mukhtarli of crossing the border illegally in possession of €10,000 ($11,200) in illegal money, which Mukhtarli’s lawyer claims was planted on him. A court in Azerbaijan will discuss his case on 31 May.
Sadigov said he saw bruises on Mukhtarli’s face and forehead. His client complained of ‘severe pain’ and said that he thinks that his ribs are broken, the lawyer added.
Mukhtarli’s work and activism
Leyla Mustafayeva told the media at a press conference on 30 March that Mukhtarli was often interviewed by international media organisations about the state of freedom of the media in Azerbaijan prior to the abduction. She said they were both investigating stories involving the financial interests of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Amnesty International has called the case a part of a ‘deeply sinister development in a country known for its long crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders’, labeling Mukhtarli a prisoner of conscience detained solely for his work as a journalist.
The couple had gone into exile in Georgia in 2015 amid fears for their safety over their journalistic activities.
Mukhtarli openly criticised the Azerbaijani authorities for violating human rights. He participated in a demonstration in front of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tbilisi on 18 November with several Azerbaijani activists, including Mehman Galandarov, who was found dead in Baku Detention Centre on 28 April.
Earlier in May, Mukhtarli told Jamnews that he believed he was being spied upon.
Georgia — ‘paradise lost’ for exiles from Azerbaijan
On 4 May, Azerbaijani pro-government website Haqqin.az published a piece by ex-opposition figure turned government ‘attack dog’, Eynulla Fatullayev, accusing the Georgian authorities of not hindering a supposed plot by Azerbaijani opposition figures in exile in Georgia to overthrow Aliyev’s regime. The article included Mukhtarli’s name along with other opposition figures residing in Tbilisi.
Other activists have also faced difficulties in recent months.
Gozal Bayramova, deputy head of the opposition Public Front party, was detained on 26 May while crossing the Georgian–Azerbaijani border for allegedly smuggling €12,000 ($13,400).
Dashgin Aghalarli, another opposition figure living in Tbilisi who attended the anti-Aliyev rally in November, has been ordered to leave the country by the Georgia’s Court of Appeals.
Journalist Gunel Movlud and her husband were forced to leave Georgia in 2016.
Opposition musician and journalist Jamal Ali was denied entry by Georgian border guards at the airport on 19 April after flying from Berlin to Tbilisi.
many self-exiled Azerbaijani dissidents living in Georgia now think that Aliyev’s government is using all possible means, including Georgia’s energy dependency on Azerbaijan, to put pressure on the Georgian authorities to stop issuing them residence permits and granting them asylum. Following recent developments, some activists are considering leaving Tbilisi, Georgian media outlet Netgazeti reported.
Accusations towards the Georgian government
More than 10 local human rights organisations and numerous journalists attended a rally in solidarity with Mukhtarli on 31 May in front of the Georgian Government Chancellery building in Tbilisi.
Recent changes in Georgia’s policy towards Azerbaijani exiles has raised concerns about an increased loyalty from the Georgian Government towards the Government of Azerbaijan, which ‘contradicts the fundamental principles of democracy and the idea of human rights’, a joint statement from the protesters read.
They suggested two probable scenarios that occurred in Mukhtarli’s case: either the Azerbaijani special services kidnapped the journalist, or Georgia’s law enforcement agencies were involved.
Leyla Mustafayeva blames the Georgian authorities for her husband’s disappearance, claiming that it is the government’s responsibility to provide safety for people residing in Georgia.
Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Ministry opened an investigation for ‘illegal detention’, after Mukhtarli’s wife reported him missing to Georgian police. ‘We are communicating with the Azerbaijani side about the case. As soon as the circumstances are determined, the public will be informed’, Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs wrote in a statement on 31 May.