Dozens gathered outside Tbilisi’s Parliament building on Tuesday to mark a year since Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was abducted in Tbilisi. Mukhtarli was sentenced to six years in prison by an Azerbaijani court on charges rights groups say are trumped-up.
The demonstration was organised by Tbilisi-based advocacy group the Human Rights House. Demonstrators including representatives of non-governmental organisations, activists, and others demanded the Georgian government conduct a transparent investigation of Mukhtarli’s disappearance, and to create a parliamentary oversight committee to scrutinise it.
‘There has been a wrong understanding of “state interests” in Georgia since the era of Shevardnadze’s rule, which disregards human rights. We still don’t know anything about the progress of the investigation’, said Aleko Tskitishvili, executive director of Tbilisi-based advocacy group the Human Rights Centre.
Another representative of the group, Natia Tavberidze, said that Mukhtarli still had not received ‘victim’ status within the investigation.
The rally was mostly led by Azerbaijani activists, for whom the Human Rights Centre has a designated support programme.
One Azerbaijani activist, who refused to give his name, said he does not feel safe in Georgia, claiming the Azerbaijani security forces were following him in Tbilisi.
Campaigners said that in spite of the high profile and international attention the case had garnered, the Georgian authorities had so far failed make a convincing case that Georgian law enforcement agencies were not involved in the kidnapping.
Human rights advocates organised several previous rallies demanding a more transparent investigation, including a solidarity rally organized by the Charter of Journalistic Ethics on 31 May 2017 in front of Government Chancellery and a protest near the Georgian State Security Service in Tbilisi with a parallel rally in Batumi on 1 June 2017.
[Read on OC Media: The Afgan Mukhtarli case: an investigation stalled?]
Accusations of collusion
Mukhtarli was last seen in Tbilisi on 29 May 2017, on his way back home after meeting a friend in a Tbilisi 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, current head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Mukhtarli also claimed that Georgian authorities — including 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.
Mustafayeva has actively campaigned in Tbilisi for a transparent investigation into the kidnapping. She told OC Media in April she was disappointed with the pace and transparency of the Georgian authorities’ inquiry into the matter, calling it ‘an imitation of investigation’. Mustafayeva, a journalist herself, has sought political asylum in Germany.
‘Some investigations are never solved’
The Georgian government initially disagreed with the ‘preliminary conclusions’ of rights groups about the Georgian authorities’ possible complicity in abduction, which according to Prime Minister Kvirikashvili were ‘discrediting state institutions’. Then-Cabinet member Aleksandre Jejelava even stated that Mukhtarli was a security guard, not a journalist, only to backtrack later.
In June, reporters from the OCCRP and Rustavi 2 watched two hours CCTV footage of the route Mukhtarli took home before his abduction, which according to them appeared to have been doctored.
In the same month, in an interview with the Azerbaijani office of RFE/RL, Azerbaijani MP Elman Nasirov claimed that the Mukhtarli’s arrest was a ‘successful operation’ between the Georgian and Azerbaijani authorities. The Georgian government rejected the claim, later claiming that as their request to interview Mukhtarli in Azerbaijani custody had not been accepted, it was impossible for the investigation to progress further.
On 20 July then-Interior Minister Mghebrishvili said he had suspended the head of the Border Police and chief of Counterintelligence due to the investigation, while Mukhtarli’s case was handed over to the Prosecutor’s Office, who have handled the investigation since.
In February, a large group of human rights advocacy groups and media outlets called on the Georgian Parliament to set up an interim investigative commission on Mukharli’s case, supported by the European Georgia Party, but the initiative was voted down the same month.
In an opinion poll conducted in March 2018 by CRRC, commissioned by Transparency International, 33% of those polled in Georgia believed the Georgian authorities kidnapped or helped Azerbaijani operatives kidnap Mukhtarli.
Mukhtarli was not mentioned in the State Security Service report presented to MPs in July 2018 by the agency head Vakhtang Gomelauri. Gomelauri expressed concern about the termination of the head of the Border Police and chief of Counterintelligence in July if the Azerbaijani authorities claim Mukhtarli was detained while crossing the border by himself was true.
Speaking to journalists, the security chief argued that ‘some investigations are never solved’ and that ‘similar cases had happened in other countries too’, citing the abduction of a ‘Vietnamese opposition member’ from Germany and the killing of an Azerbaijani journalist in France. ‘Nothing happened, no one said anything [in Germany...] nor was the French Interior Ministry or Head of Counterintelligence sacked because of it’, the Georgian Public Broadcaster quoted Gomelauri as saying.
[Read on OC Media: A government’s fear or bargaining chips — Political prisoners in Azerbaijan]
Mukhtarli’s abduction has been roundly condemned by rights groups, both local and international. This has included the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House, who referred to Georgia’s commitments to the European Convention on Extradition.
Then US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly described suspicion of the Georgian government’s involvement in the abduction as 'serious’ and 'troubling' allegations, adding that the Embassy expected additional information from the government. Several days after, on June 3, US State Department released a statement, urging Azerbaijani government ‘to release all those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms in accordance with its international and OSCE commitments’, adding that they were ‘closely following the Georgian investigation into the reported abduction’, urging that ‘it be full, transparent, and timely’. The statement also mentioned the arrest of Deputy Chairperson of the opposition Popular Front Part, Gozal Bayramli, who was detained for alleged smuggling of money while crossing the Georgian-Azerbaijani border on 26 May 2017.
On 15 June, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging Georgia to conduct a ‘prompt, thorough, transparent and effective investigation’, to bring the perpetrators to justice, and ‘clarify beyond any doubt all suspicion regarding the involvement of Georgian state agents in the forced disappearance’.