An Azerbaijani activist being sought by Azerbaijan via Interpol has been arrested in Georgia, where he was seeking asylum. Azerbaijan has accused him of fraud while his lawyer said he was being persecuted for his criticism of the government.
Avtandil Mammadov was arrested on 17 June in Marneuli, a city in southern Georgia where he lives with his wife and children. He has been living in Georgia since April 2017.
On 19 June, Marneuli Court set bail at ₾3,000 ($1,100) for his release. His lawyer, Archil Chopikashvili, told OC Media that Mammadov would remain in pretrial detention as he could not afford to pay it.
Azerbaijan is seeking Mammadov’s extradition on multiple charges of fraud. According to Georgia’s Interior Ministry, the case in Azerbaijan was launched against him on 17 May 2017.
Chopikashvili said that his client previously provided aid to individuals by representing them in court, which is lawful.
Chopikashvili also represented Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist who disappeared in May 2017 in Tbilisi reappearing a day later in prison in Azerbaijan.
‘Both are being persecuted for their political views’, Chopikashvili told OC Media.
Chopikashvili said he believed that the real reason behind Mammadov’s arrest was his criticism of the Azerbaijani authorities.
‘Aliyev is a dictator’, Mammadov said as his first words upon entering the Marneuli Court, Radio Marneuli reported.
Mammadov previously worked at Azerbaijani rights group the Institute for the Protection of Rights and Liberties. He has also previously monitored elections in Azerbaijan and trained others about voter rights.
Asylum case pending
Mammadov’s extradition cannot go ahead for now as he is registered as an asylum seeker in Georgia.
According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, he requested asylum from Georgia in 2017 but was rejected ‘due to the absence of grounds’.
Mammadov appealed the rejection in court and the next hearing is due to take place on 21 June.
‘Therefore, until the court hearings end, Mammadov is considered an asylum seeker. According to Georgian legislation, an asylum seeker cannot be extradited or expelled from Georgia until the ministry makes a decision to grant him international protection or the court’s decision is enforced’, said a statement from the Interior Ministry.
Mammadov’s wife, Gunel Mammadova, told OC Media that her husband received a call at around 12:00 on Monday summoning him to the local police station. She said that after two hours, he left their house in Marneuli to meet with the police.
When Mammadova walked out after her husband 15 minutes later, she said she saw him handcuffed in the car. She said she was told that Mammadov had been detained because of the criminal case against him in Azerbaijan.
Mammadova said that before moving to Marneuli, they had lived at a shelter but that her husband was constantly followed by ‘unrecognised men’, and the family reported this to the police.
‘Because of the constant surveillance, we moved from the shelter to Marneuli. When he received a call from the police, we couldn't even imagine that it was somehow connected with Azerbaijan. We thought that the police called us because of our appeal about the surveillance’, she said.
Mammadova said that their family was forced to move to Georgia in 2017 because Mammadov was receiving constant threats ‘that he would have drugs planted on him, or his family would suffer if he did not stop doing what he did’.
The Mukhtarli case
In May, activists in Tbilisi including Avtandil Mammadov held a small demonstration in front of parliament demanding that Afgan Mukhtarli be released. They were marking two years since his disappearance in Tbilisi.
Mukhtarli was last seen in Tbilisi on 29 May 2017 on his way back home after meeting a friend in a café. He resurfaced jailed in Azerbaijan the next day. According to his lawyers, Mukhtarli was kidnapped by four Georgian-speaking men, three of them wearing police uniforms, who planted money in his pocket as they crossed the Georgian-Azerbaijani border.
Mukhtarli was charged by the Azerbaijani authorities with smuggling €10,000 in cash, illegal border crossing, and resisting police, eventually being sentenced to six years imprisonment.
After being temporarily released from prison to attend a memorial service for his sister and her two daughters in Zagatala, Mukhtarli told Georgian TV station Rustavi 2 he had been investigating business ties between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and former Georgian Prime Minister, the current head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Mukhtarli also claimed that Georgian authorities — including then–Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili — conspired with Azerbaijan to deliver him across the border. His wife Leyla Mustafayeva claimed his compassionate release was cut short at the request of Georgian authorities after he spoke with Rustavi 2.
[Read more about Afgan Mukhtarli’s case on OC Media: The Afgan Mukhtarli case: an investigation stalled?]