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An Azerbaijani court rejected an appeal by abducted journalist Afgan Mukhtarli on Wednesday, upholding his 6-year prison sentence. The day before the hearing, one of his lawyers had his license suspended for ‘politicising the case’.
Mukhtarli was abducted from Tbilisi last May and brought to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to 6 years in prison on 12 January, accused of smuggling €10,000 ($11,200) in cash, border trespass, and disobeying border guards.
Archi Chopikashvili, Mukhtarli’s Georgian lawyer, told OC Media they will now appeal the ruling in Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court, but said they do not expect a fair judgement.
He said that Georgian law enforcement bodies have not provided any updates regarding the investigation into his abduction.
Rusudan Mchedlishvili, a lawyer from Human Rights House, a Tbilisi based right’s group, told Rustavi 2 that Mukhtarli was deprived of a fair trial as ‘the court was biased’.
‘At the hearing, he said he already knew what the judgement would be. This is simply a routine he has to go through to reach the European Court of Human Rights’, Mchedlidze said.
OCCRP reported that Gafur Mammadov, a guard who claims to have been assaulted by Mukhtarli during his arrest, testified that he spent the night of 29 May in a hospital after being assaulted. ‘Mukhtarli's lawyer Elchin Sadigov asked the prosecutor to produce a document proving Mammadov was in the hospital. The prosecutor said there was no written record’, OCCRP reports.
How was Mukhtarli abducted?
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 Azerbaijan charged with what his lawyer called ‘bogus charges’. 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.
Mukhtarli was beaten and taken to the Azerbaijani–Georgian border, where he was detained by Azerbaijani police. Baku’s Sabail District Court imposed three months of pretrial detention on Mukhtarli on 31 May.
How did Georgian authorities react
After being accused of involvement in his abduction, Georgian authorities denied that they assisted or were in any way involved. In June, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on President Giorgi Margvelashvili to immediately grant citizenship to Mukhtarli’s wife and daughter.
Mustafayeva rejected the offer soon after, claiming she does not want to give up her Azerbaijani citizenship. Mustafayeva added that she had applied for a Georgian residence permit a year ago, but was rejected for ‘posing a danger to state security’.
Georgia’s Interior Minister has suspended the head of the Border Police and chief of Counterintelligence in its investigation into Mukhtarli’s abduction from Tbilisi.
He confirmed that it is possible to cross the Georgian-Azerbaijani border somewhere other than an official crossing point, but that it happens rarely. He repeated that this was Azerbaijan’s official explanation for how Mukhtarli crossed without any official documents, as his passport remained in Tbilisi.
After several International rights groups condemned Mukhtarli’s abduction, the US State Department released a statement saying they were disturbed by the ‘reported abduction and subsequent arrest of Mukhtarli’ and arrest of Deputy Chairperson of the opposition Popular Front Party, Gozal Bayramli. Bayramli was detained on 26 May while crossing the Georgian–Azerbaijani border, allegedly for smuggling €12,000 ($13,400) in cash.
The US said they were closely following the Georgian investigation into the abduction, and have urged that it be full, transparent, and timely. The statement also urged Azerbaijan’s government to release all those ‘incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms’.
The European Parliament passed a resolution on 15 June which ‘strongly condemns the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli in Tbilisi and his subsequent arbitrary detention in Baku’ and ‘considers this a serious violation of human rights and condemns this grave act of breach of law’.
The resolution also urged the Georgian authorities to ensure a ‘prompt, thorough, transparent and effective investigation into Afgan Mukhtarli’s forced disappearance’ and to bring the perpetrators to justice, while challenging them to ‘clarify beyond any doubt all suspicion regarding the involvement of Georgian state agents in the forced disappearance’